On January 13, 2024, Taiwan will hold its eighth presidential election, a three-way race between Vice President William Lai of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party (KMT), and former Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). This series of blog posts introduces the three candidates’ foreign policy and national security positions.
Hou Yu-ih, the mayor of New Taipei City, is the Kuomintang’s (KMT) presidential nominee. Hou, a career police officer who rose to become Taiwan’s chief of police before being elected mayor of New Taipei City in 2018 and reelected in a landslide in 2022, has little diplomatic and foreign policy experience. His views on international affairs were largely unknown prior to entering the presidential race.
While the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its nominee, William Lai, have framed the 2024 election as a choice between democracy and autocracy, Hou and the KMT have framed it as a choice between war and peace. As former President Ma Ying-jeou starkly stated, “Vote for the DPP, [and] youth will go to the battlefield. Vote for the Kuomintang, and there will be no war on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” Hou’s running mate has repeated this mantra, arguing, “Next year’s elections are a choice between war and peace, if people want peace, prosperity, a corruption-free government and cross-strait stability, then vote for the KMT.”
For Hou and the KMT, cross-strait dialogue is a major – and for many members of the party, the major – pillar of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. If the two sides are not talking, according to this line of thinking, war is far more likely, but if China and Taiwan are deepening their cooperation then war will not occur. As a result, the KMT views the DPP’s approach to cross-strait relations as dangerous and its failure to maintain cross-strait dialogue as imperiling Taiwan’s security.
In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Hou put forward a foreign policy platform of “Three Ds” – deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation. Through this framework, Hou has sought to integrate cross-strait dialogue with hard deterrence and reassure international audiences that he would not neglect Taiwan’s defenses even if cross-strait cooperation were to resume. The big question, though, is how Hou would respond if China were to condition cross-strait dialogue on Hou agreeing not to pursue enhanced security cooperation with the United States and to limit defense expenditures.
Seeking Cross-Strait Rapprochement
Hou and the KMT believe that cross-strait dialogue and cooperation with Beijing on issues from trade to people-to-people exchanges and tourism serve an inherently stabilizing function. As Hou wrote in Foreign Affairs, cross-strait dialogue is “a crucial way to defuse crises and ensure peace and stability.” He remarked that as a police officer he learned, “Facing down opponents in a hostage situation teaches you that whether you’re on the offensive or the defensive, you must also engage in dialogue and negotiations.”
When the KMT last held the presidency, from 2008 to 2016, Taiwan signed over twenty agreements with China, including the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. Such exchanges took place on the basis of the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which according to the KMT means that both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree that there is one China but have different interpretations as to which government is the rightful representative of China (for the KMT, it is the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China). Ironically, however, there is no consensus on the 1992 Consensus, as China interprets it as meaning there is only one China, Taiwan is a part of China, and the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing China.
This confusion regarding the 1992 Consensus, as well as growing concerns among Taiwanese that further integration with China would lead them with no alternative to unification, has led most Taiwanese to conclude that they do not support the 1992 Consensus. For a political party trying to win elections, it is generally advisable not to endorse a policy most voters disagree with, and as a result early in his campaign Hou attempted to distance himself from the 1992 Consensus and did not explicitly endorse it.
Over time, though, Hou’s position evolved (likely due to the intervention of powerful KMT figures) and he has since embraced the 1992 Consensus, including in his Foreign Affairs article. At the same time, Hou has attempted to argue that endorsing the 1992 Consensus is not tantamount to relinquishing Taiwan’s sovereignty, as the DPP alleges. Hou wrote, “I uphold Taiwan’s democratic and free political system while opposing both demands for Taiwan’s independence and any attempt to absorb the island into unification with mainland China under the guise of ‘one country, two systems.’ I advocate for both sides to carry out official interactions based on a model of mutual nonrecognition of sovereignty and mutual nondenial of jurisdiction. Taiwan’s future will be determined only by its own people.”
Hou opposes Taiwan independence, arguing that a majority of Taiwanese people do not want formal independence and that pursuing that path would damage Taiwan’s relationships with the United States and other partners. At the same time, his opposition to “One Country, Two Systems” is an attempt to align with public opinion, which is deeply skeptical of China and worried that Taiwan will become the next Hong Kong.
Hou has stated he would seek to revive the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), the pact first pursued by President Ma that sparked the Sunflower Movement and the occupation of Taiwan’s legislature by protestors in 2014. The CSSTA would open some service-sector markets in Taiwan to Chinese investment, which has prompted concerns that it would increase Taiwan’s dependence on China. (Interestingly, Hou announced that he would pursue the CSSTA after his opponent, Ko Wen-je, said he would do so.) Hou has also stated he would allow Chinese students to work while they are studying in Taiwan, which they are currently barred from doing.
With Hou explicitly endorsing the 1992 Consensus and stating that he would pursue further economic integration with China and more cross-strait cooperation, Beijing would likely agree to reopen dialogue with Taipei and reduce its military, economic, and political pressure on Taiwan. It is unlikely, however, that Hou would agree to enter into political talks with China, and the question would then turn to whether Xi Jinping is content with functional cooperation or demand to move beyond that and further demonstrate progress toward unification. If that scenario were to be the case, the honeymoon period could be short-lived.
Improving Taiwan’s Defenses
Defense policy and the role that a meaningful deterrent plays in stabilizing cross-strait relations are areas where Hou meaningfully differs from the previous KMT administration. Whereas President Ma oversaw stagnant defense budgets, viewing war as unlikely while the two sides were talking, Hou has asserted the need to approach China from a position of strength and prepare for worst-case scenarios. He remarked, “No matter how the mainland changes, we must be prepared and we must have strength. Sun Tzu’s Art of War said: ‘Don’t rely on the enemy not coming, rely on me being prepared to wait for him.’”
Notably, deterrence appears as the first of the “Three Ds” Hou introduced in Foreign Affairs, ahead of dialogue. Hou explicitly stated that “Taiwan’s most important priority should be to strengthen its national defense and deter the use of force by mainland China.” He put forward a robust defense platform that includes acquiring asymmetric capabilities, establishing a common operating picture across Taiwan’s military services, enhancing cybersecurity in critical infrastructure, forming urban warfare professional units, developing an early warning system, and establishing a cabinet-level All-Out Defense Mobilization Council to oversee inter-agency cooperation for defense preparedness and mobilization.
Hou has also criticized the Tsai administration for the low retention rate in the military, with Taiwan’s volunteer force now down to 155,000 people. To combat this, Hou has called for raising salaries for members of the military and improving the living conditions of soldiers.
One question, though, surrounds Hou’s commitment to the extension of mandatory military service from four months to one year, which President Tsai introduced in 2022. The legislature approved this initiative without opposition, meaning that KMT lawmakers signed off on the plan, but early in his campaign Hou called for rolling it back to four months. Hou quickly backtracked, although he left the door open to reducing conscription back to four months if cross-strait relations improved.
Enhancing Relations with the United States and Japan
Hou has called for strengthening U.S.-Taiwan relations. He has voiced support for the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade and expressed “hope that the United States can assist Taiwan in joining other regional trade and economic arrangements, including the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.” He has also stated that Taiwan can “play a proactive role” in U.S. efforts to promote friend-shoring and supply chain resilience.
Hou has called for boosting security cooperation with the United States to include conducting joint exercises, which China has long opposed. This is another example of Hou embracing a forward-leaning and ambitious defense policy while also signaling to the United States that he would not allow Taiwan’s deterrent to atrophy.
Hou has also signaled that he would deepen ties with Japan, a critical relationship for Taiwan because the level of support that Japan would offer to the United States during a conflict over Taiwan could prove decisive. The first country Hou visited after securing the KMT nomination was Japan, an attempt to convey that he would take a different approach to Japan than Ma, who elevated Taiwan’s claims to the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea, leading to friction in the bilateral relationship.
Despite securing the KMT’s nomination for president, Hou initially struggled to win over the party’s most ardent supporters (known as “deep-blue” voters). Hou’s native Taiwanese background, paired with his refusal to support the 1992 Consensus, raised suspicions among party members. He lagged far behind in the polls, as KMT members expressed that they either did not support any candidate or threw their support behind Ko Wen-je. Speculation that the KMT would replace Hou as the party’s nominee grew.
To shore up his base, Hou has embraced deeper-blue policies, above all the 1992 Consensus. He added King Pu-Tsung, a close aide to former president Ma, to advise his campaign. He named media personality Jaw Shaw-Kong, a co-founder of the pro-unification New Party who only recently rejoined the KMT, as his running mate. The KMT also selected Han Kuo-yu, a deep-blue politician who was the party’s 2020 presidential candidate, to lead its slate of legislators, meaning that Han would become speaker of the legislature if the KMT secures a majority.
These moves seem to have paid off, with Hou rising in the polls largely as a result of KMT members throwing their support behind him. At the same time, Hou’s embrace of more traditional KMT policies raises the question of how Hou would govern as president; would he prioritize cross-strait dialogue over investing in defense if Beijing made it clear he could not pursue both? Similarly, if cross-strait dialogue resumes, would Hou argue that the threat from China had receded and therefore Taiwan did not need to spend as much on defense?
Beijing would likely respond to a Hou victory by lowering the temperature in the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, China’s decision to welcome a trip by Ma and separate trips from KMT vice chairman Andrew Hsia signals it is prepared to resume dialogue with a KMT administration. China would likely reduce the frequency and scale of its military activities around Taiwan, remove some economic sanctions, and allow Taiwan to participate in select international organizations. It would do so hoping to draw Taiwan closer and demonstrate that trendlines are moving in its favor and that unification is becoming more attainable.
At some point, however, this honeymoon period would likely end as China sees that Hou – and the Taiwanese people writ large – do not have interest in unification and instead want to maintain the status quo indefinitely. The question, then, would turn to whether Xi is willing to tolerate the status quo or seeks to accelerate a resolution of cross-strait differences.