WASHINGTON — Taiwan’s choice of president in the January elections sent a strong message that the island nation wants to maintain its autonomy from China, but voters also sent an appeasing signal to China by denying the president-elect’s party a majority in the legislature.

After Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te’s inauguration in May, he, like U.S. President Joe Biden, will face the challenge of governing with a legislature dominated by the opposition party.

“I think the Taiwanese electorate has sent a very sophisticated and wise message to China,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who visited Taiwan twice, including a 2022 trip with then Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Lai was vice president and represented the same party as the current leader, President Tsai Ing-wen.

“They, at the same time, also sent the message by their parliamentary elections,” Takano told Medill News Service, “I think what they said to the new president-elect [was] yes, stand strong for Taiwan’s democracy and liberal economy. But you know, don’t go too far.”

Experts in both countries say the bilateral relationship between the United States and Taiwan could shift as a result of the January elections on the island, but a bigger change could come because of upcoming voting in November in the United States.

The likely Biden-Trump rematch already has played a role in U.S.-Taiwan relations. If former President Donald Trump were to win a second term, the U.S.-Taiwan partnership most likely would become more unpredictable.

Even before the outcome of the 2024 elections, Trump’s objection to funding Ukraine in its war with Russia has helped sway House Republicans to postpone a $95.3 billion foreign aid package, which the Biden administration requested in October, to late March or April.

$8 billion for Taiwan

The package, which provides funding for Ukraine and Israel, also would allocate $8 billion for Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific partners. The Senate adopted the legislation, 70-29, on Feb. 13, but it has been stalled in the GOP-dominated House.

“It’s difficult,” Rep. Takano said. “We’re looking to try and get more aid to Ukraine. … But Taiwan is always considered part of that supplemental security package.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has threatened to annex Taiwan with military forces and has ordered multiple military drills and actions against the seif-ruled island.

After Taiwan finished its democratic voting, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Thursday that “the outcomes can’t change the basic fact that Taiwan is a part of China and the historical trend that Taiwan must return to its mother nation.”

“The election in the Taiwan area was just one of the Chinese local elections,” Wang claimed.

In Taiwan’s election, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election with 40.1% of the ballots. Lai and Vice President-elect Bi-khim Hsiao, the former Taiwan envoy to Washington, promised to follow President Tsai’s path on preserving the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

Lai, who served as Taiwan’s Premier in 2017, explained his ideology on pursuing Taiwan independence. But in recent years, he modified his stand and claimed that Taiwan already is an independent sovereign country and did not need to declare its independence.

Soon after being elected, Lai said, “I will act in accordance with the constitutional order of the ‘Republic of China’ in a manner that is balanced and that maintains the cross-strait status quo.”

Tsai 2.0

Evan Wright, a research assistant at The Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said that Lai essentially presented himself as “Tsai 2.0.”

“He is, to a certain extent, the extension of the policies of President Tsai in the first place. So I think, even though Beijing sort of interprets him [Lai] as a troublemaker to a certain extent, we can still expect that status quo,” Wright said.

Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te, second from the left, and President Tsai Ing-wen, third from the right, oversee a launch of a Taiwan-built offshore patrol vessel on March 3 at Kaohsiung, Taiwan. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan’s Office of the President.)

Taiwan has been ruled under the name of “Republic of China” since World War II ended.

In 1949, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party defeated the Nationalist authority in mainland China but the Nationalists retained power in Taiwan and several islands.

Taiwan has been separated from China and de facto independent since then, but hasn’t declared independence or changed its name. The Beijing-based regime, the People’s Republic of China, claims that Taiwan is a renegade province of its country.

The United States ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan to establish relations with Beijing in 1979. Since then, the United States has pursued “a robust unofficial relationship,” and considers Taiwan “a key U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific,” according to a State Department fact sheet.

Washington opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from China and Taiwan under the “One China” policy. “We do not support independence,” President Joe Biden reiterated on Jan. 13 after Lai won the elections.

Sense of relief

Wright told Medill News Service, “I think there’s a sense of relief, considering the fact that Taiwan, which has been holding democratic elections now since 1996, has continued to remain a democracy,”

“Based on the way that the Taiwanese voters elected Lai as the incoming president here, it has something to say that they also sort of prefer a status quo,” Wright said.

During the second and the last term of Taiwan President Tsai, Pew Research found that the percentage of people in Taiwan who considered themselves “primarily Taiwanese” held stable with 67% in 2023 compared to 66% in 2019.

However, the percentage of Taiwanese people who wanted to “maintain status quo, move toward independence” dropped to 21.5% in 2023 from 25.8% in 2020, according to the poll made by the election study center of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

That could be reflected in the fact that the Democratic Progressive Party, a moderately pro-independence party, narrowly lost the majority in the legislature that it held since the 2016 elections.

Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te, right, met Legislative Speaker You Si-kun, left, on January 23. You later resigned on February 1 as the ruling party lost the Speaker voting. (Photo courtesy of Lai Ching-te’s facebook page.)

Out of the 113 seats in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, the party won 51 seats in the election, which was fewer than the 52 seats of Nationalist Party, known as KMT. Another 10 seats were won by the opposition Taiwan People’s Party, or TPP, with eight and independent candidates with two. Both KMT and TPP prioritize cooperation with Beijing. KMT’s Han Kuo-yu was elected speaker.

The KMT sent a strong signal to Beijing during the campaign. The party’s vice chairman, Andrew Hsia, visited China several times before and after Taiwan elections.

Preventing war

“KMT’s principle is preventing the war from happening,” KMT legislator Hsu Chiao-hsin told Medill News Service. “We have obligations to maintain the status quo, prevent intensifications which affect geopolitics and cause burdens to our allies. The KMT is trying hard to do so.”

While KMT identifies the nation as “Republic of China” rather than “Taiwan, Republic of China,” Hsu believes that her party is better aligned with Washington’s “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing’s leadership.

“The DPP administration isn’t the only one in Taiwan-U.S. communications,” Hsu said. “We hope to deliver the accurate message to Washington, including our difficulties in military training and the lack of manpower.”

Hsu won her freshman legislative seat in the January election and joined the Foreign and National Defense Committee as one of the 13 members. Her fellow KMT Party member, Ma Wen-chun, heads the committee and has criticized Washington, while the DPP party is more pro-United States.

For example, after Kevin McCarthy, the U.S. House Speaker at that point, met Taiwan President Tsai in a rare high-level meeting on U.S. soil last year, KMT’s Ma criticized the summit as “hollow” in parliament and questioned Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense about the delivery of U.S. arms.

“We paid nearly $19 billion of our defense budget, but didn’t receive the arms, many of which were delayed,” Ma said. “We don’t have to obey every word of America. We must pursue our own national interests. ”

Taiwan still is waiting for an arms backlog from the United States, which costs $19.17 billion. Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said that Taiwan regularly waits up to three years longer for arms delivery than other U.S. allies. For instance, Taiwan waited seven years for Abrams tanks, but countries in Europe and the Middle East only waited for four years.

On the delay of arms deliveries, Hsu said that now with its greater power in Taiwan’s legislature, her party will ask Washington to explain the delays. “We see delays in arms sales from the United States. Taiwanese people are concerned about the reasons for the delays and the timeline of delivery,” Hsu said.

Avoiding provocation

Some experts are concerned that the new leadership in Taiwan’s legislature might decide to spend less on purchasing expensive weapons from the United States to avoid provoking China.

“From the U.S. point of view, the lack of a DPP majority in the Legislative Yuan is a bit concerning because the United States wants to see continued budgets pass that have increases in defense spending,” said Bonnie Glasser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program.

“I think there is some concern in the United States that maybe it will be difficult to sustain the resources that have been devoted to Taiwan’s defense,” she said.

As China exerts its influence around the globe, Taiwan has been steadily losing diplomatic partners. Days after Taiwan’s January elections, Pacific island nation Nauru cut ties with Taipei and recognized Beijing.

The U.S. State Department said Nauru’s action was “nonetheless a disappointing one.” Matthew Miller, the spokesperson of the department, said, “The PRC often makes promises in exchange for diplomatic relations that ultimately remain unfulfilled.”

Lai I-chung, an adviser at Taipei-based think tank Taiwan Thinktank, said that most nations severed their ties with Taiwan and established ties with China simultaneously, but Nauru established its relations with Beijing nine days after the breakup with Taipei.

“It was obvious that China requested Nauru to break its ties with Taiwan before Nauru finished negotiating with China. It’s clear that this action was against Taiwan,” he said.

Taiwan’s high-ranking officials, such as the president and vice president, are not allowed to formally visit the United States except under other circumstances like passing through from another nation. Taiwan Vice Presdient Lai Ching-te, right, visited New York in August on his way to Paraguay, a Latin American country that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan’s Office of the President.)

12 nations maintain relations

Nauru’s decision left only 12 nations obtaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Three of Taiwan’s allies are in the Pacific Ocean and seven are in Latin America.

Since Washington has kept its interaction with Taiwan unofficial since 1979, Taiwan’s president and high-ranked officials are not allowed to formally visit the United States. To step on U.S. soil, the Taiwan president has to claim the trip in only a transit from other Taiwan’s allies.

Lai I-chung said, “What’s more directly affected was the transits of Taiwan presidents. For example, President Tsai ‘stopped by’ the United States after her trips in Belize and Guatemala last year. How can our president transit to the U.S. if we lost our allies in Latin America?”

Takano said the Biden administration and Congress actively supports Taiwan and had paid “much more close attention” to countries’ decisions to cut ties with Taiwan.

On Saturday, Biden signed a bill that includes $7.1 billion under the Compact of Free Association. The agreement allows the U.S. military to operate facilities in the three nations, including the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

The funding will be sent to the Freely Associated States of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. The latter two countries both maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Other than Taiwan’s geopolitical location, the island’s technology also is key to enhancing the United States in its competition with China. In 2022, Biden signed the CHIP and Science Act to compete with China on semiconductors manufacturing.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., known as TSMC, produces about 90% of the world’s advanced semiconductors used for artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

With support from the Biden administration, TSMC invested in two chip factories in Arizona. “You know, what TSMC is contemplating doing in Arizona is path breaking,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a February speech,

“They are investing in the United States and we’re grateful that they’re doing that and we’re going to make sure it’s successful.”

Trump evades question

But Trump may change America’s tactics on Taiwanese chipmakers. Asked in a Fox News interview in July whether the United States should help defend Taiwan during a war with China, Trump refused to answer and brought up the chips, instead.

“Taiwan did take all over our chip business,” Trump said, “Remember this, Taiwan took, smart, brilliant, they took our business away. We should have stopped them. We should have taxed them. We should have tariffed them.”

After Trump swept the GOP primaries on Super Tuesday, Stanley Kao, who served as Taiwan’s envoy to the United States from 2016 to 2020, urged the incoming Lai administration to get prepared for the Biden-Trump rematch in November.

Kao said the heightened polarization due to the upcoming elections in the United States might paralyze Congress. “That’s what happened to the aid package for Taiwan,” Kao said at a Wednesday seminar in Taipei.

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, left, D-Wis., led five bipartisan members of the U.S. House to visit Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te, right, in Taipei, Taiwan, on February 22. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan’s Office of the President.)

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, openly supported the $95.3 billion package for Taiwan, Israel and Ukraine. Gallagher led a bipartisan visit to Taipei in February, but he isn’t seeking re-election in the November election.

Researcher Evan Wright said that U.S. bureaucrats across the State Department and Pentagon have distinct Taiwan policies and experience in working with Republicans, but Trump “was relatively unpredictable as a figure when it came to his Taiwan policy.”

“What we’ll see with a new Trump administration, I think will really shift,” Wright said. “Just because of the fact that I don’t think we can necessarily guarantee that a lot of people that were in the former Trump administration will be coming back for a second.”

So while Taiwan’s January elections could subtly change U.S.-Taiwan relations, U.S. elections in November could alter them greatly.

“I think, admittedly, if we do see a change in relations between Taipei and Beijing, it will most likely have more to do with a changing presidency here in the United States, rather than Taiwan,” Wright said.

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