Whether Taiwan will see a change of government, currently led by the independence-leaning party, as a result of the Jan. 13 presidential election has drawn attention, but the poll's outcome may only have a limited impact on Sino-U.S. ties.

With the two major world powers agreeing on some steps that could help improve bilateral relations during a November summit near San Francisco, Beijing likely will not escalate cross-strait tensions, at least during the U.S. presidential election campaign in 2024, reducing the near-term prospects of an invasion of Taiwan, experts say.

Kent Calder, professor at Johns Hopkins University, told a recent Tokyo press conference that the summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping brought bilateral tensions to levels they were before a 2022 visit to Taiwan by then House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"At least for the next year or so, perhaps, hopefully, there is a 'cease-fire,'" he said on Sino-U.S. relations in the November news conference, adding the Biden administration "would like to see stability above all" across the Taiwan Strait following the democratic island's leadership election.

Taiwan's presidential hopefuls (from L) Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party, Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, and Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Nationalist Party take part in a live televised policy presentation in the suburbs of Taipei on Dec. 20, 2023.
(Photo courtesy of Taiwan People's Party)(Kyodo)

In the race, Hou Yu-ih, the nominee of the main opposition Nationalist Party that seeks dialogue with Beijing, gained more support and now trails the frontrunner, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party, by a narrow margin, recent opinion polls showed, increasing the chances the eight-year DPP rule coming to an end.

China, which regards the island as a renegade province to be brought into its fold by force if necessary, has shunned talks with the DPP government since incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016 and called Lai, the vice president, a "separatist" and "troublemaker."

But Madoka Fukuda, professor of Hosei University, pointed out that even if Lai wins the election, China may approach him and offer a dialogue behind the scenes if the mainland deems it necessary.

Conversely, if Hou wins and sticks to his election pledge of opposing both independence and the "one country, two systems" -- China's strategy when regaining rule over Hong Kong and Macao -- to maintain the status quo of cross-strait relations, his government might receive a frosty reception from Beijing, she said.

The former British and Portuguese colonies returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and 1999, respectively. China and Taiwan have been governed separately since they split in 1949 due to a civil war.

"When China decides on its actions, it not only takes into consideration Taiwan but also various international relations, including its ties with the United States and Japan," Fukuda said. "China will find it hard to escalate cross-strait tensions based only on the situation in Taiwan."

Fukuda also said that the Taiwanese know that regardless of who becomes the island's president, the situation will "not dramatically change." Beijing may ease some restrictions on cross-strait trade and people-to-people exchanges in the case of a victory by Hou, the current mayor of New Taipei City, she added.


Taiwan has "limited choices" amid an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry, Fukuda said. Both the DPP and the Nationalist Party or the Kuomintang (KMT) will likely pursue policies of deepening cooperation with Washington and boosting the island's self-defense capabilities, she indicated.

The basic trend of Taiwan businesses slashing investment in the mainland following the U.S. request of "de-risking," or reducing dependence on the Asian powerhouse, will remain unchanged even if the KMT wins, Fukuda said.

Denny Roy, senior fellow of the East-West Center in Hawaii, said he believes if Lai wins, "by the middle of 2024, we will be back to high and sustained cross-strait tensions," but how high will depend partly on U.S. policy.

Washington could publicly disavow Lai as being too provocative or treat him as a respected leader of a fellow democracy, he said.

"We could expect China to react most strongly to U.S. actions that the Chinese interpret as 'salami-slicing.' Going further than past precedents to promote Taiwan independence," Roy added, using the term for a series of many small actions to produce a much larger action.

As for any impact on Beijing's relations with Washington from the U.S. presidential election in November 2024, Ryosei Kokubun, professor emeritus at Keio University, said at a recent press conference China will see no problems in dealing with either Biden or former President Donald Trump, who will likely become the Republican nominee.

While Kokubun said many Chinese people favor Trump's skill at cutting economic deals, Roy warned if the former president is reelected, he might reach an agreement with Xi that would include a withdrawal of U.S. support for Taiwan.

"In any case, Trump would likely resume weakening U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific, making a potential defense of Taiwan less robust," he said.

A screen inside a subway train in Beijing shows on Nov. 16, 2021, the news of a virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Fukuda said she believes the Taiwan Strait is more stable now than during the Trump administration through January 2021, and the Biden government policies are more predictable in the eyes of Beijing and Taipei. In the case of Trump's reelection, he may not be personally interested in cross-strait issues, she added.

The Hosei University professor urged Japan to strategically build ties with Taiwan regardless of which party wins in the presidential election since relations with the island, which is close to the southern prefecture of Okinawa, are vital for Tokyo.

Tokyo could be involved if Beijing attacks the self-ruled island, she added. Following Pelosi's Taiwan visit in August 2022, China staged large-scale military drills around the island that included the firing of ballistic missiles, some of which fell into Japan's exclusive economic zone.

The United States and Japan maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan as they have switched their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Based on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington supplies the island with arms to help it maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.

Ko Wen-je, of the second-largest opposition, the Taiwan People's Party, is also running in the Taiwan presidential race.

Some experts project the TPP, led by the former Taipei mayor, will increase seats in the legislative election also to be held on Jan. 13, likely resulting in no party securing a majority and making it hard for the new president to gain parliamentary approval for his policies.

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