Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential Election: Analyzing Ko Wen-je’s Foreign Policy Positions
from Asia Unbound, Asia Program, and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential Election: Analyzing Ko Wen-je’s Foreign Policy Positions

Ko Wen-je claims that he can chart a third way, simultaneously boosting Taiwan’s defenses while restarting communication with China. It is unclear, however, whether China would accept his overtures.
Taiwan People's Party’s (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je speaks to an audience in Hsinchu, Taiwan.
Taiwan People's Party’s (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je speaks to an audience in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Ann Wang/Reuters

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.  

Ko Wen-je is the presidential nominee of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), the political party that he founded in 2019. Like his opponent William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ko is a doctor who entered politics after a successful medical career. He taught at one of Taiwan’s leading medical schools, leading his supporters to affectionately refer to him as “Professor Ko” or “KP.” Ko was elected mayor of Taipei in 2014, a post that he held for two terms and that is traditionally seen as the second-most powerful political position in Taiwan after the presidency. 

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Ko’s political journey has been unconventional and at times confounding. Ko rose to prominence in large part by associating himself with the Sunflower Movement, which formed in opposition to President Ma Ying-jeou’s proposed Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China. The DPP supported Ko, choosing not to put forward a candidate to oppose him when he first ran for mayor. This, in part, allowed Ko to defeat the Kuomintang’s (KMT) candidate in a landslide to become the first independent mayor of a traditional KMT stronghold. Ko endorsed Tsai Ing-wen when she ran for president in 2016 and even campaigned for pro-independence politicians such as Freddy Lim. 

Gradually, though, Ko distanced himself from the DPP and embraced policies more closely associated with the KMT, while the TPP has recruited politicians from pan-blue backgrounds. As a result, the DPP ran a candidate against Ko when he ran for reelection in 2018. He recently remarked, “I hate the Kuomintang but I hate the Democratic Progressive Party even more.”  

Ko positions himself as a populist who flouts conventional wisdom and is willing to speak his mind—something that has gotten him into trouble as he is prone to making offensive remarks. He views his candidacy as a protest of the two-party system, claiming that both the DPP and KMT are more focused on ideology than on solving the real problems facing the Taiwanese people. By contrast, Ko asserts that he is “the only person in Taiwan who can end the ideological disputes over unification and independence” and that he would pragmatically approach every issue. This appeals to Ko’s base, which is mostly composed of young voters who believe the KMT and DPP have not done enough to address the challenges they face such as rising housing prices and the lack of job opportunities. 

On foreign policy and national security issues, Ko’s positions often seem to contradict one another. He has stated that the United States is Taiwan’s most important partner but at the same time has commented that Taiwan needs to manage its relations with the United States and China in a “dynamic equilibrium.” He has voiced concern with Taiwan’s overdependence on trade with China while also advocating that Taiwan pursue a trade agreement that would increase commercial exposure to Beijing. He has sought to persuade voters that he is the only candidate who can simultaneously maintain Taiwan’s autonomy and restart dialogue with Beijing, but has refused to endorse the so-called 1992 Consensus, the only formulation that Beijing has accepted for cross-strait interaction. As a result of this flip-flopping and lurching from one position to another, it is unclear what Ko’s foreign policy would actually look like in practice. 

A Middle Ground on Cross-Strait Issues? 

Ko argues that the KMT and DPP represent two extremes in handling cross-strait relations and he can chart a middle way that is not weighed down by ideology: “I feel [the] KMT has always been on the submissive side when working with mainland China while [the] DPP stop all the channels of communications with [the People’s Republic of China]…If you look at [the] KMT, they seem to be taking all the measures to be afraid or to avoid a war; whereas [the] DPP, in its provocative terms, seems to create a momentum to seek war in many people’s eyes.” By contrast, Ko argues that he would combine deterrence with communication to stabilize cross-strait relations. 

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Taiwan Strait


Ko has some experience in cross-strait relations; as mayor, he held the Twin City Forum between Taipei and Shanghai every year, which brought together officials and civil society from both cities. He traveled to Shanghai and stated that the “two sides of the Strait are one family” that share a common destiny, seemingly nodding to a “one-China” framework – and echoing language Xi Jinping often uses to describe cross-strait relations – without endorsing the 1992 Consensus. 

Ko argues that maintaining the status quo is Taiwan’s only choice, bluntly stating that “there’s no point in even talking about unification or independence right now because you can’t achieve either.” At the same time, he believes that cross-strait interaction is necessary in order to maintain the status quo. He has argued, “The two sides of Taiwan Strait must restart the dialogue mechanism as soon as possible to resolve differences and avoid conflicts and to work together to maintain peace and stability.” Like the KMT, Ko opposes Taiwan independence, but he attempts to draw a distinction between his position and that of the KMT by explaining that he arrived at that position not through ideology but rather out of pragmatism because declaring independence would trigger a war. 

While China welcomes this opposition to Taiwan independence, Ko has refused to endorse the 1992 Consensus, which Beijing maintains is a prerequisite for cross-strait interaction. Ko has instead stated, “If the 1992 Consensus is a prerequisite, it is not going to lead us very far because the ’92 Consensus in Taiwan, the whole image of it has already been smeared.” At the same time, he has attempted to draw a distinction between his view and that of the DPP, commenting, “When China asks if we accept the ‘92 Consensus,’ the DPP government directly says ‘no.’ My answer would be: ‘There doesn’t seem to be a market for this in Taiwan. Should we change the name of the term?’” 

Ko’s refusal to endorse the 1992 Consensus, however, leads to the question of whether China would agree to an alternative one-China framework as the basis for cross-strait engagement or whether it would continue to insist on that formulation. While China may have deemed Ko’s “one family” statement sufficient while he was mayor, the context has since changed and it will likely hold Taiwan’s president to a higher standard. 

Other aspects of Ko’s cross-strait platform, which includes sharing Taiwan’s “experiences and progress in democracy, human rights, and environmental governance” with China, will likely raise eyebrows in Beijing. Ko has also said one should “never give up to transform China,” which would be seen by the Chinese Communist Party as a threat to its grip on power. Such statements, combined with Ko’s previous alignment with the DPP, would raise suspicion in China as to Ko’s intentions and trustworthiness. 

Ko’s stance on economic engagement with China is hard to discern. He has criticized Taiwan’s overdependence on the Chinese market, arguing that “if we would allow this to continue, there will be more imbalance in our economy and we will continue to be sucked into this trap.” While calling for de-risking, Ko also became the first candidate during this election cycle to call for revisiting the CSSTA, which is ironically the agreement that he opposed while aligning with the Sunflower Movement and that would increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on China. As mayor of Taipei, Ko called for building a bridge between the island of Kinmen and the Chinese city of Xiamen, justifying such a proposal on economic grounds, although such a project would have increased Kinmen’s reliance on China and raised serious security concerns for Taiwan. 

Improving Taiwan’s Defenses 

One area where Ko has not broken from his opponents is on the need to bolster Taiwan’s defenses, arguing that a strong military is necessary in order to maintain cross-strait stability. His party platform states that “national defense is the cornerstone that upholds cross-strait and international relations.” He has noted that “increasing our strength and power is a prerequisite to be able to find that balancing point” in maintaining the status quo, recognizing the imbalance that currently exists. He has also alluded to the need to approach China from a position of strength by building up Taiwan’s defensive capabilities before seeking dialogue with Beijing. 

Pursuant to this, Ko has called for raising Taiwan’s defense spending from its current level of 2.5 percent to three percent of GDP and improving Taiwan’s information- and cyber-warfare capabilities. He has called for Taiwan to overhaul the training of its conscripts and to continue to invest in its defense industrial base. He has also emphasized the need to “face the [CCP]’s non-conventional threats, such as cognitive warfare, public opinion warfare, cyberattacks, gray zone tactics and so on.” 

Taiwan’s Foreign Policy Priorities 

Ko has said the United States is Taiwan’s “most important ally…and the strongest nation in the world for Taiwan.” He has called for deepening cooperation with the United States, noting that “Taiwan and the United States share the same view…We have common interests.” At the same time, Ko has blamed U.S.-China competition for squeezing Taiwan’s international space, implicitly assigning some of the blame for Taiwan’s predicament to the United States and its policy toward China. He stated that Taiwan needed to manage the United States and China in a “dynamic equilibrium,” adjusting policy toward Washington and Beijing depending on which side is stronger. Ko also explained that the status quo was Taiwan’s only option in part because “the U.S. won’t let Taiwan unify with China,” although that is not U.S. policy. 

While Ko has criticized elements of President Tsai’s foreign policy, at other times he has stated that he would follow Tsai’s foreign policy if elected. One element of this is strengthening relations with Japan, which Ko visited after becoming a presidential candidate. During that visit, Ko called for trilateral dialogue between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan, noting that “there needs to be much closer ties between Taiwan and Japan in particular.” 

Ko recently caused a stir when he stated that it would not be a problem if Taiwan lost all of its “diplomatic allies,” or those countries that maintain diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan). While Ko was correct in assessing that Taiwan’s unofficial relationships are more important than these official relationships with much smaller countries, they are nonetheless important because these countries advocate for Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations. In addition, Taiwan’s president currently “transits” the United States only while traveling to those countries with which Taiwan has diplomatic ties. 

On trade, Ko has broken from his opponents in dismissing the prospect of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), arguing that China would block its entry. Instead, Ko has proposed joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), although it is unclear why China would block Taiwan’s entry into CPTPP but allow it into RCEP, as China is also not a member of the former but is a member of the latter. 


Ko Wen-je is the wild card of Taiwan’s presidential race, with policies on foreign affairs and cross-strait relations that are often difficult to discern. While he has called for strengthening relations with the United States, Ko has also seemed to imply that Taiwan should keep a distance between both Washington and Beijing and lamented that Taiwan was caught in the middle of “the struggle between big powers.” Ko has been critical of Taiwan’s economic dependence on China but stated he would pursue a controversial trade pact that would make Taiwan more dependent on the Chinese market. 

More fundamentally, there are legitimate questions as to Ko’s preparedness for handling cross-strait relations. Ko has likened Taiwan’s relationship with China “to the past relationship between the United States and England,” which is unlikely to reassure Beijing since the United States gained independence from England. When the DPP’s candidate, William Lai, commented that “When the president of Taiwan can enter the White House, the political goal we are pursuing will have been achieved,” Ko responded by criticizing Lai for not going far enough, adding “Our ultimate goal should be for Taiwan to be recognized by the whole world.” Such a statement, which seems to call for Taiwan to be recognized as an independent country, is hard to reconcile with Ko’s position that he can restart cross-strait dialogue. 

Ko’s bungled negotiations with the KMT to form a unity ticket also raised concerns about his discipline and ability to handle the high stakes of dialogue with China. As one astute observer of Taiwanese politics concluded, “This is precisely my nightmare when I think about President Ko negotiating with China. He will think that he is smarter than everyone else and can handle matters, and he won’t be prepared nearly enough. He’ll end up making important choices on the fly. This is how you make stupid, harmful decisions.” 

Even if Ko loses the presidential election, there is the chance that he will be influential in the coming years as his party could hold the balance of power in the legislature in its hands. If neither the DPP nor the KMT wins an outright majority in the legislature, which some observers believe is likely, then the TPP could either stymie the president by blocking his legislative priorities or advance his agenda while shaping it. Which path Ko will choose, however, is hard to predict. 

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