January 18, 2024
IntelBrief: Taiwanese Elections Could Signal an Uptick in Cross-Strait Tensions with China
On Saturday, Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) secured a third consecutive presidential victory, with Lai Ching-te declared the winner — rebuking Beijing’s threats of a potential conflict over a pro-independence victory. Lai's victory, with over 40 percent of the votes, reflects support for Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation, prepared to defend itself against Chinese threats while strengthening ties with other democracies. Taiwan is a democracy of 23 million people, facing continuous cross-Strait threats from Beijing, which views Lai Ching-te as an ardent separatist. China responded by reiterating its claim that Taiwan is part of China, emphasizing the one-China principle. However, Taipei’s allies, including the United States and Japan, congratulated Lai on his party’s victory, with Washington and Tokyo highlighting the election as a fundamental lesson in democracy. The potential for conflict remains, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping in recent weeks called reunification a “historical inevitability” that he would prefer to see occur peacefully, while hinting that China also could use force if deemed necessary. Even with China's focus on its economy and other global issues, coupled with a minimal thaw in U.S.-China tensions after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco in November, brinkmanship is expected to remain a dominant feature of relations across the Taiwan Strait. Some Western-based China analysts strongly believe that Lai’s electoral victory drastically increases the chance of war in the not-so-distant future.
To some observers, China’s aggressive approach with Taiwan appears to have backfired, with the election results suggesting a continuation of the status quo in cross-Strait relations. Lai said that he would seek to balance relations and look for opportunities to cooperate with China, although his approach is most likely to resemble that of his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen. Washington’s support for Taiwan has been a major issue historically. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, maintaining a close relationship with Taipei is a top agenda item for many lawmakers in the U.S. Congress. U.S. security cooperation and partner capacity-building efforts in Taiwan have mostly focused on cybersecurity, intelligence sharing, and logistics. Washington provided approximately $350 million in military aid to Taiwan last year. In August, the Biden administration authorized approximately $80 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds, which Taiwan plans to use to improve maritime domain awareness and enhanced maritime security, as well as joint and combined defense capabilities that will be improved through closer coordination between the U.S. and Taiwan.
Taiwan remains a global leader in semiconductors and components for microprocessors, making the security of the island central to some of the world’s most important supply chains as well as the global economy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has repeatedly warned the United States not to interfere with Taiwan, which Beijing considers an internal matter. The election of Lai could see China expand its full suite of capabilities in grey zone warfare, including both carrots and sticks. This would mean expanded military drills with jets, drones, and warships to reinforce Beijing’s saber rattling. But there could also be some economic incentives and offers to eliminate tariffs as a potential trade benefit. China is operating with its own domestic constraints, however, as the CCP needs to urgently address a sagging economy. Although China’s economy grew 5.2 percent in 2023, its long-term growth outlook is slowing due to a confluence of factors, including high debt and its aging and shrinking workforce, straining economic output.
Chinese-led disinformation campaigns surged in the run-up to the 2024 Taiwanese General Elections. This long-simmering issue has kept Taiwanese authorities vigilant against interference by China. Multiple instances of information operations, which Taiwanese Premier Chen Chien-jen labeled cognitive warfare, have been identified and thwarted. In December, a fabricated poll, orchestrated by the CCP portrayed the pro-Beijing Kuomintang Party (KMT) in the lead. The journalist associated with its publication was subsequently arrested. Another persistent element in anti-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) propaganda alleges secret collusion between the DPP and the United States, even asserting that Lai's running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, maintains covert U.S. citizenship, rendering her ineligible. Disinformation themes have also covered Lai's personal life and alleged warmongering political motives. A March 2023 report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRlab) noted the prevalence of inauthentic Facebook accounts spreading content aligned with CCP objectives, aiming to polarize the Taiwanese public and diminish animosity towards China. Additionally, an AFP news investigation revealed that certain anti-DPP videos cascaded from Douyin, the censored Chinese version of TikTok, to TikTok, the popular video sharing platform with over 1.1 billion users. Negative portrayals of an increasingly independent Taiwan have not been confined to domestic channels in Taiwan. In the United States, the Republican National Convention released an AI-generated video in April, depicting a dystopian future and insinuating that another term for U.S. President Joe Biden would lead to war in Taiwan. Emerging generative AI applications have been increasingly leveraged by propagandists to construe or amplify disinformation narratives. In Taiwan, the Ministry of Justice warned in December that a deepfake YouTube video had started circulating, allegedly exposing Lai and his three mistresses. Another deepfake showed Lai praising the pro-Beijing KMT party. It is likely these Chinese disinformation campaigns against Taiwan will continue with Lai sworn in as president in May, continuing a trend since 2019 of Beijing’s increasing reliance on non-kinetic activities to further its foreign policy objectives.