“Taiwan compatriots must stand on the right side of history, and make a correct choice to promote cross-strait relations back to the right track of peaceful development,” Zhang Zhijun, a senior Chinese official, said on the 3rd of this month, referring to the island’s presidential election on the 13th.

“Correct choice”?

China’s regime is not happy. The candidate it abhors, Lai Ching-te of the governing Democratic Progressive Party, has been pulling away from the field. Just a few weeks ago, Lai was polling within the margin of error. In some polls, he was in second place.

Beijing calls Lai a “separatist” for wanting Taiwan to remain independent from the People’s Republic of China. The Communist Party maintains that the island republic is an inalienable part of China.

Xi Jinping in his 2024 New Year’s message suggests he is going to act soon. “China will surely be reunified, and all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi declared in a paragraph that appears to list what will happen this year.

Taiwan’s government rejects Xi’s language of “reunification,” pointing out that the People’s Republic has never ruled the island.

In fact, no Chinese regime has ever held indisputable sovereignty over Taiwan. The Qing dynasty, which ruled China, controlled most of Taiwan but was considered by China’s people as “Manchu” and therefore foreign. Even Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, which is Chinese and controlled Taiwan from the end of the Second World War until its electoral defeat in 2000, was ruling under a cloud. The Treaty of San Francisco, which settled almost all disputes from that global conflict, did not confer sovereignty to Taiwan on any government.

Legal niceties do not matter in Beijing, of course. Xi has made it clear that he will be the one to annex Taiwan.

Taiwan’s people have heard Xi’s dire-sounding warnings before and for the most part have tuned him out. In the most recent My Formosa poll, Lai, currently vice president, held a commanding 39.6% to 28.5% lead over the Kuomintang’s Hou Yu-ih. Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party came in third with 18.9%.

Most surveys in late December showed Lai, whose given name is sometimes rendered as “William,” surging.

The reasons for the surge look to be cultural. Lai’s campaign was ailing while voters were concentrating on perceived failures of governance of the DPP, as the governing party is known. Now, however, the electorate is starting to focus on China.

That’s a big built-in advantage for so-called “Green”—Taiwanese—parties like the DPP. As generational change occurs, Taiwan has become more Taiwanese. In recent years, consistently more than 60% of the island’s 23.5 million people self-identify as “Taiwanese Only”—many polls show over 80%—while generally less than 5% put themselves into the “Chinese Only” category.

Hou’s “Blue” Kuomintang fled to Taiwan in 1949 as it was losing the Chinese Civil War. The “White Terror,” a brutal four-decade campaign to cement Chinese rule, is now remembered every February 28. That’s the day in 1947 when Chiang Kai-shek’s regime fired into Taiwanese protestors in the capital of Taipei, triggering a murderous crackdown. Hou, to shore up his base, picked a pro-China running mate, Jaw Shau-kong, but this choice inevitably reminded voters of the history of this brutality.

Ko, who presents himself as the “Third Force,” has also sided with the Taiwan-is-China voters. “The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are of the same race and have the same history, language, religion, and culture,” he proclaimed on December 30 during a televised debate.

The DPP’s Lai has so far crafted a winning message. “Lai can be expected to continue the moderate but firm line set by President Tsai Ing-wen,” Gerrit van der Wees, an adjunct professor of Taiwan History at George Mason University, tells the Daily Caller News Foundation. “He will emphasize Taiwan’s sovereignty as a free and democratic nation, strengthen and deepen Taiwan’s ties with like-minded countries, strengthen deterrence through the buildup of the defense and security system and Taiwan’s advanced economy, and display a readiness to sit down with Beijing on an equal basis.”

Beijing, van der Wees notes, has not been willing to negotiate with Taiwan on the basis of equality, and Hou and Ko, who say they can better handle China, have yet to convince the electorate that they will do so. The Kuomintang, also known at the KMT or Nationalist Party, favors something called the “1992 Consensus” with China. The DPP says there is no such consensus, and so far voters do not seem to think that, even if the 1992 Consensus does exist, it can be the basis of any long-term accommodation with Beijing.

The Kuomintang’s Hou, Beijing’s preferred presidential candidate in this month’s contest, has been arguing that Lai’s election could provoke the Chinese regime to invade. Many foreign analysts, especially those in Washington, share Hou’s fear. Beijing at the end of last month called Lai the “true face of destroyer of cross-Straits peace.”

There is a real risk of war, but war could come regardless whom the voters favor on the 13th. Yes, Xi Jinping could view Lai’s election as a provocation that must be dealt with by force, but relations with China were not always calm during the last KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou, whose terms ran from 2008 to 2016.

Xi, who cannot stop talking about war in general, could decide to launch an invasion if a President Hou or President Ko decided not to agree to his annexation demands. Given that voters overwhelmingly do not see themselves as part of China, no democratically elected leader can give Xi what he wants.

Nobody in Taiwan wants to be invaded of course, so the risk of war depends entirely on what happens in China, not Taiwan. Throughout the history of the People’s Republic, Beijing’s foreign policy has been driven by domestic politics. Anything can be considered a provocation if you’re General Secretary Xi Jinping, who needs a foreign enemy at the moment.

Gordon G. Chang on January 7, 2024

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