For the first time in twenty years, China displayed military presence in the Taiwan Strait, flying two J-11 fighter jets across the median line of the strait on 31st March. Citing this incident, The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) expressed concerns of growing tension between the United States, China and Taiwan in the lead up to elections due to take place on January 2020. Recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have bolstered the popularity of current President Tsain Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in the presidential elections, a sentiment welcomed by the United States, but viewed less favourably by the Communist Party of China (CPC), who prefer the election of the Kuomintang (KMT) party. There are fears that hopes for a free and fair election could be derailed by PRC meddling to regain sovereign control over Taiwan after the two territories were split by a civil war 70 years ago.
Commenting on growing tensions, Senior Adviser for Asia at the CSIS, and Director of the China Power Project, Bonnie Glaser, stated, “The Chinese are clearly sending a signal to Taiwan that they are not happy with the Taiwan Government’s policies, including strengthening defence ties with the United States.” However, a tweet posted by President Ing-wen in June, inspired by Hong Kong protests captured her resistance against Taiwan’s reunification with China, a resistance supported by the majority of the republic: “We stand with all freedom-loving people of #HongKong. In their faces, we see the longing for freedom, and are reminded that #Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy must be guarded and renewed by every generation. As long as I’m President, ‘one country, two systems’ will never be an option.”
With no formal recognition of the end of the Chinese Civil War that originally split the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, regional tensions are still felt today. The extent to which the United States is willing to intervene to ensure free and fair elections is unknown. Under the Six Assurances originally implemented in 1982 and formally adopted by the House of Representatives in 2016, the United States agreed to maintain its neutral position on Taiwan’s sovereignty and stated it would not act as a mediator between the two nations. However, under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is required to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan. Thus far, there have been three sales under the Trump administration, and more arms sales are being considered for the future. Furthermore, the Trump administration has recently had vessels pass through the Taiwan Strait every month to monitor activity.
In the election, China prefers the KMT party, as it prioritises economic ties with the mainland over more independent economic policies. Eurasia China Analyst Kelsey Broderick indicated that it is unlikely Chinese officials will resort to the use of threats or violence to encourage reunification during elections as it is not well-received by voters in Taiwan, but rather use softer and more subtle ways of persuasion, such as economic incentives. Glaser of CSIS stated there is evidence of money being funnelled from mainland China to various groups in Taiwan, as well as the spread of disinformation and interference in social media. If the United States is to effectively fight for free and fair elections in Taiwan, they must refrain from behaviours that will escalate tensions along the Taiwan Strait, including naval operations, and instead find ways of monitoring alleged interference by the CPC in the form of political donations and the spreading of disinformation through social media.
Much like the CPC, the United States must also refrain from any form of interference in elections, especially after allegations were made against Washington in the 2012 Presidential Elections. These allegations were made by the Democratic Progressive Party, who accused Washington and Beijing of undue interventions in the elections. Most importantly, and particularly amidst the current atmosphere created by the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, military escalation from either side must be avoided. Glaser recommends that United States officials should encourage Beijing to restore official cross-strait communication and negotiation channels. Should Beijing take measures that are likely to damage Taiwan’s economy or prevent them from participation in the international community, the United States must take actions to offset these negative impacts.