Virtual Media Briefing: Elections in Taiwan

Thursday, January 11, 2024
Richard Chung/Reuters

Professor of Law, Seton Hall University School of Law

Fellow for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists discuss the upcoming elections in Taiwan to select a new president and legislature.

STARES: Thanks very much, Emily. Good day, everyone. Welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations briefing on the upcoming Taiwanese elections, due this Saturday. Thank you all for tuning in today. We particularly welcome our corporate members as well as the media, who are also joining us. For those who don’t know me, I’m Paul Stares. I’m a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, where I direct the Center for Preventive Action. 

We have two terrific experts to help us understand what is happening in Taiwan and the upcoming elections in particular, and particularly what is at stake with these elections. David Sacks is a fellow in China Studies at the Council, where he focuses on U.S.-China relations, U.S.-Taiwan relations, Chinese foreign policy, broadly defined, and cross-strait relations. He was project director of the recent CFR Task Force on Taiwan, and has written a piece that is in the current edition of Foreign Affairs on Taiwan’s status quo elections, as well as very helpful profiles on each of the three candidates that are all on the Council’s website. And you can just go to to see them. 

David is joined by Margaret Lewis, who is an associate dean and professor of law at Seton Hall Law School, where she focuses on law in China and Taiwan with an emphasis on criminal justice issues and human rights. She too, also, was a member of the CFR task force. We are very grateful in particular for her joining us because she’s coming live from Taipei, if I understand correctly. And if my math is correct it’s, what, 5:00 a.m. in the morning there? And I can see you’re already fortified with the caffeine to help us along. So thank you, Maggie, for joining us. 

So as typical at these media briefings, I will have a conversation with our two panelists for about thirty minutes. And then we will open it up for Q&A. So, David, let me start with you first. And if you could kind of set the scene for us, particularly give us a sort of broad overview of the three candidates, how they—what their positions are on the major issues. I think in your Foreign Affairs piece, you indicated that they’re broadly aligned. But tell us—tell us a little more about their background, what they believe in, what they advocate, particularly when it comes to relations with China. 

SACKS: Sure. Thanks, Paul. And thanks, Maggie, for joining us so early in Taipei. And thanks, everyone, for joining us virtually today. 

So, as you mentioned, I think my bottom line here is that none of the candidates, and this is a three-way race, is proposing a radical departure from where Tsai Ing-wen has taken Taiwan over the past eight years. On what we would call the blue end of the spectrum, the KMT, you don’t see anybody arguing for a return to the Ma years of 2008 to 2016, or any discussions about political negotiations with China, or moving closer to China in a meaningful way. And on the green end of the spectrum, the DPP, you don’t see a yearning to return to the days of Chen Shui-bian, who was Ma’s predecessor and made a quite forceful push for, you know, moving towards de jure independence that was not welcome in Washington and, obviously, not in Beijing either. 

And so, you know, the candidates have tried to set this up as a—kind of an existential election. For the KMT, it is a choice between war and peace. Vote for the DPP and your kids will go off to fight. Vote for the KMT and we’ll have calmer cross-strait relations and a better international environment for Taiwan. For the DPP and for William Lai, he said that this is a choice for voters between democracy and autocracy. Only the DPP can safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty and its autonomy, while the KMT will sacrifice that for closer relations with Beijing. And, you know, obviously, if you’re trying to win an election you want to paint a stark contrast between yourself and your opponent, but I think that neither of those charges is really warranted.  

All three candidates have said that the United States is Taiwan’s most important partner. And all have pledged to deepen economic and security cooperation with Washington. You know, Ko Wen-je and Hou Yu-ih have both said that they would raise defense spending to close to 3 percent of GDP. Lai has signaled that he would also continue to raise the defense budget. All have spoken about arms procurement from the United States, as well as doing things like joint military exercises and pursuing interoperability with the United States.  

And then if you—if you look at kind of Taiwan’s foreign policy more broadly, I think it’s safe to say that all of them believe that Taiwan’s most important relationships are with the West. They talk about getting closer to Japan, to European countries as well. Again, this is the direction that Tsai has taken Taiwan in over the past eight years. And I think that they all pretty much believed that that’s the direction Taiwan should go in. You even had a somewhat awkward moment on the campaign trail where Ko Wen-je just said, basically, well, my foreign policy is just going to be a continuation of Tsai Ing-wen. So it’s a little awkward when you’re trying to beat her vice president, who she’s endorsed, and you said that, basically, I agree with all of her policies. But that’s where we were on that score. 

On cross-strait relations, unsurprisingly that is where you have a difference among the candidates. And so Co Wen-je has not said—has not flatly rejected the so-called 1992 Consensus, but neither has he endorsed it. Lai has rejected it, and equated it with one country, two systems. And Hou Yu-ih, interestingly, at the beginning of his candidacy tried to stay away from the 1992 Consensus, dodged that, but in his Foreign Affairs article he did endorse it and got behind it. So, you know, I think it’s safe to say that for the KMT and Ho Yu-ih, as well as for the Taiwan People’s Party and Ko Wen-je, they place more of an emphasis on dialogue with the PRC as an important element to defuse tensions and lower the chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication.  

Whereas I think for Lai it’s certainly not like he doesn’t want dialogue with Beijing, he said that the door is open and he’s willing to talk on an equal footing. But he’s not willing to say the four characters that China continues to insist on as the basis for cross-strait dialogue. And so for Lai, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that his top priority is really strengthening ties to the United States, Japan, and other democracies. And cross-strait communication is something that’s nice to have, but not something that you must have. And if you look at his Wall Street Journal op-ed, which was a short piece but I think the fullest explanation of where he—where he stands, interestingly, cross-strait dialogue was, I think, the third of his four pillars that he laid out. And the first one was really about strengthening ties with democracy, as well as Taiwan’s defense. 

So the final thing that I’ll say—and I’m happy to go into more background on the candidates, where they come from and their specific positions on issues—but the final thing that I would say, which I also try to highlight in the Foreign Affairs piece, that I think that there is a consensus that has emerged in Taiwan over the last couple of years on these key national security questions facing the island. And, yes, it is a quite robust democracy where there are big disagreements on issues. But, you know, following China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, paired with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I think there is broadly a sense that there is a threat from China, the threat is real, and Taiwan can’t just rely on Xi Jinping’s goodwill or communication with China to prevent an attack. It needs to invest in its defense. It needs to bolster its deterrent. And, again, so all the candidates are largely reading from the same sheet of music on defense issues. 

Yes, there is, you know, this smaller trend in Taiwan that Maggie can talk about called America skepticism theory—this sense that, you know, the PRC fuels, I would argue, as well—that, yes, the United States supports us. But when push comes to shove, they won’t be there. And so we can rely on them. But besides that, again, you do have this consensus that Taiwan’s most important relationship is with Washington. And it needs to do what it can to strengthen that. And that’s really where the priority of its foreign policy needs to be placed. And so, yes, we can get into the weeds and talk about where they stand on various trade agreements and economic policy, but I think at a 30,000-foot level there is really a consensus that is formed, and we don’t see these huge divisions that we’ve seen in prior presidential elections. 

STARES: Got it. That’s terrific, David. Thank you for that. 

Maggie, so my understanding, you’ve been listening to the candidates, you’ve been going to some of the rallies, visiting party headquarters. Give us your sense of where you think things are headed on Saturday. My understanding is there has been no polling. They’re not allowed to hold polls, is it, like, ten days before the election? So we don’t actually know where the public is leaning at the moment, or the electorate at least. What’s your sense? Give us give us your sense sort of from the ground, if you will, on where you think—what the outcome will likely be on Saturday? 

LEWIS: Well, good morning. And I’ve got a bit of a husky voice, which is proof that I’ve been running around in meetings nonstop, and at rallies, and whatnot. I’m here with a baker’s dozen of academics, all of whom are very much Taiwan scholars, which is fantastic. So we’ve had a lot of substantive meetings under Chatham House rule. One of our people with us was here first observing an election in 1989, which was a local election. It was before the 1996 direct presidential elections started. So it gives you a sense that this is a young democracy. And it is so overused but, boy, is it vibrant. When there was at least, you know, a hundred-some-thousand people out last night for the DPP’s big rally in front of the presidential office. The TPP, Ko Wen-je’s party, will have that space tonight.  

And I actually just was in Beijing and flew over on Tuesday night. And I think too the contrast of going from Beijing, where—I mean, it’s always gray and dark in Beijing in January. But this feeling of it being politically dark as well, and then coming here into the throes of the height of the campaign, is really something which is jarring, and in a wonderful way. It just shows how much excitement there is. 

I’m not going to give a prediction because no one I have spoken with here will give a prediction. We do not know. And, yes, they haven’t been able to do polling for ten days, but even before that the polling is really fraught. You know, it’s really difficult based on just the standard issues with polling of how you ask questions, how you reach out to people, the landlines, cellphone, other ways. And it’s really—we had a conversation yesterday about what the weather is going to be like on Saturday. You know, will people go out to vote based on that as partial motivation? And there really is a sense of this is a true three-way race.  

There’s conversations that are really complex about who Ko Wen-je’s going to take more votes from. He’s unlikely to win. It’s most likely going to be Lai. That said, Hou Yu-ih was making a surge as they were finishing up the polling ten days ago. And, of course, too it’s not just about the president. This is also an election for the Lifa Yuan, for the legislature. And that is an interesting unicameral body. But the seats are based—the majority are based on districts, actually where you’re living, whether it be Taipei, or Tainan, wherever. But it’s also a party list vote.  

And this is where we’re getting a lot of conversations about—even though people do not expect Ko to win for president, they do expect his party to do pretty well. I mean, maybe 15 percent, I’ve heard varying numbers, but enough that they will have a presence that could be very meaningful in the legislature. And so this goes to sort of even if someone wins the presidency, will they also win a majority? And then we’re likely to go back to the days where, for example, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, right before him was, of course, Chen Shui-bian. And when Chen Shui-bian, a DPP president, he was dealing with a KMT majority legislature, which made his job, you know, that much more difficult. So there’s a lot of those conversations going on as well. 

I’d say too that, you know, there is a real sense that, yes, cross-strait issues always loom large. And even last night, some of the visuals at the DPP rally were things like the photo of Uyghurs, who were being subjected to forced labor or some sort of, you know, actual incarceration in Xinjiang. You know, those visuals are there. Compared with four years ago though, there is a different vibe. When I was here in 2020, there were tons of the Hong Kong black protest flags, Tsai Ing-wen when got a very big bump. We don’t know how much, but it was—you know, everyone agrees that she benefited from the Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow narrative.  

You don’t hear much about Hong Kong right now. That has faded quite a bit. Nor do you see a lot about Ukraine. So defense is there, but the DPP doesn’t have that sort of visceral get people out to vote, this is what’s happening right now. That doesn’t seem to be as motivational. And I think the DPP is worried about that, because it was helpful to have that so immediate to motivate their voters. So I’ll leave it there and then go whatever direction you want. 

STARES: So I want to come back to you, Maggie, after I’ve asked David the next question, and particularly get a finer sense of what’s driving voter preferences here, and particularly what you mentioned about the surge in Hou’s support since—just as the polling ended. 

David, Maggie mentioned she’d just come from Beijing, and the contrast is, you know, physically as well as politically very different. Give us a sense of how China’s been reacting to this election, how they’ve been managing not just sort of domestic opinion about this, to the extent we can gauge that? And sort of the broader issues that define cross-strait relations. Give us a sense of their general position to date, and where things could go in the future. 

SACKS: Yeah, sure. So the baseline that I think we should start with is that there hasn’t been any official communication between Taipei and Beijing in eight years. Beijing cut that off as Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016. In her first inaugural address, she put forward what, you know, I and many other analysts thought was quite a creative approach to cross=strait relations. It was a One China framework without saying 1992 Consensus. And the Taiwan Affairs Office famously called it an incomplete test paper, trying to get her to go further. And that was, you know, the furthest that she ended up going in the last eight years. 

So, you know, with Lai, I think it’s also safe to say—and I’ve heard this directly from Chinese interlocutors and it shouldn’t come as a surprise—they trust him far less than they trust Tsai Ing-wen. And so if they wouldn’t speak to Tsai Ing-wen for eight years, the bar set for William Lai is going to be likely much higher. 

STARES: And, David, why do they trust him less than Tsai? 

SACKS: Sure. I mean, anytime William Lai is raised in a conversation with Chinese officials or scholars, they remind you of his comment that he—I believe, seven years ago or so—when he said that he was a pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence. And so that is something that is seared in their memory and something that they constantly remind Americans or anybody else about. And, you know, I think, to Lai’s credit, he has taken steps to try to allay those concerns.  

So he has said publicly that his cross-strait policy would be a continuation of Tsai Ing-wen. He has said there are no plans to pursue independence, that Taiwan is already an independent, sovereign country, under the name The Republic of China Taiwan. But basically, you know, their response—those in Beijing—is that, well, he doesn’t mean what he says. And his comment over the summer that, you know, his goal would be to visit the White House, that was seen in Beijing as further evidence that basically over the last seven years his stripes hadn’t really changed. 

And so, you know, Lai will not say 1992 Consensus. And because of that, I think that it’s going to be very difficult to restart cross-strait dialogue. And so what you’re looking at is potentially, you know, eight going on twelve years without official communication between the two sides of the—of the strait. And, you know, you’re asking about also what their view on the election is. And, you know, they’ve made it quite clear. The Taiwan Affairs Office has said that this is a war—this is an election and a choice between war and peace. So they have bought into the KMT’s framing. And they’ve said, we hope that the voters in Taiwan make the right decision between those two options. 

They have called Lai a troublemaker and a wrecker of peace, I believe was the quote as well. So they’re not hiding their preference for Hou Yu-ih, who has, like I said before, endorsed the 1992 Consensus. And Hou and Ko have also said that they would revisit the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which was the controversial trade pact that Ma negotiated that sparked the Sunflower Movement in 2014. And so, again, I don’t think you have to really use your imagination to know what their preference would be. And I think if Lai wins, you’re going to see a lot more pressure from the Chinese on Taiwan. And I think that it would span economic, military, and diplomatic realms, and those tools. 

China’s already reviewing the ECFA agreement, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement that Ma reached with China. And so I imagine that if Lai wins, they will pretty immediately announce the removal of some preferences for Taiwanese businesses doing business in China, potentially sanctions, or embargoes, or inspections of Taiwanese products, revoking some market access, and things of that nature. China could take away a few more of Taiwan’s so-called diplomatic allies, those countries that still maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan under the name of the Republic of China. And they could also increase their flights through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, and even do, you know, some major military exercises that look like what they did following Speaker Pelosi’s visit. 

So there’s a lot of things China can do. We could argue about whether that’s counterproductive or not, but I would say that this is a playbook that they’re quite comfortable with, that they’ve used before, and will continue to employ that playbook. So I don’t think it’s surprising—it should come as a surprise what their reaction would be after Lai wins. 

The final point that I’ll make on this is that, you know, in Taiwan you also have a unique situation where you have five months between the election and the inauguration. So Tsai Ing-wen is still the president until May. So there is, you know, a conversation or a debate on whether China would wait until the successor assumes office before during the types of things I’ve mentioned, or whether they would use this interval of five months to really put on the pressure before he even assumes office. And, you know, I would lean towards the latter. I think that China will view this as a period where they can shape what Tsai’s successor does. And they’ll view it as an opportunity to really—to really ratchet up the pressure. So I don’t think that they will wait to do so. 

STARES: Yeah. Just to be clear, though, they—China has not conducted, at least to the extent they have over the last summer, sort of aggressive incursions into Chinese—excuse me—Taiwanese airspace, or sort of threatening military maneuvers in the vicinity of Taiwan recently, right? That hasn’t happened. 

SACKS: So they’ve still done flights through the ADIZ, but I think that you’re right that they’ve been less frequent. And the scale has also gone down. You know, one thing that did get attention in Taiwan recently was—well, two things. First, was they’re spotting Chinese weather balloons in their airspace. And so that seems to have continued. And now, you know, they’re keeping a lookout for them after what happened with the United States and China with the weather balloon. And so they’ve reported multiple weather balloons flying over Taiwan. And then we had this you know, incident, that I think Maggie was smiling about, just two days ago, about a satellite launched that Taiwan mistook for a missile launch over Taiwan as well. 

STARES: Set the alarms going off in Taiwan. 

SACKS: Yeah. Everyone got an alert. And it was a mistranslation by the Ministry of National Defense about what was actually occurring. And, you know, I think that, interestingly, the KMT did try to seize on that and say that it was the DPP trying to really put its thumb on the scales and the election, you know, through doing something intentionally. I don’t think it was intentional. I think it was a—you know, a mid-level bureaucrat who maybe didn’t have the best English capability who did the wrong thing. But, to your to your question, I think you are right that that the military pressure has gone down in recent months, but China can ramp that up very quickly if it wanted to. Maybe it’s a result also of the internal issues in the PLA right now. But that’s another conversation. 

STARES: So, Maggie, back to you. You more or less said it’s too close to call and that Mayor Hou has surged in—was surging, at least, before the polling ended. What’s your sense of what’s driving this? Why did the race suddenly tighten? Is it concern about relations with China? Or is it just, as I say, pocketbook issues? You know, you had wonderful characterization, this a young, vibrant democracy. You know, what are the issues that are really kind of, you know, getting people excited or agitated? You know, why are things so tight? Because, you know, I think the, the assumption here was this was pretty much Vice President Lai’s to lose. And now you’re telling us that actually things are much tighter, and the weather might have a difference, and there could be votes taken away from—so can you drill down for us on what’s your sense of—in the minds of most voters? 

LEWIS: So first, on the satellite/slash missile, I just—I totally agree with David. It was probably a mid-level bureaucrat who mistranslated it, because the timing was this—everyone’s phones lit up during an international press conference with Minister Wu at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Not ideal timing, right? And someone, I guess, yelled: Missile! You know, in the room. So, no, that was—that was—that was just a SNAFU, not some mastermind plan to get—shift voters. 

But when you look at Taiwan, one thing is, you know, it is a young, vibrant democracy with a very rapidly aging population. And so this is very interesting. There’s about 19.5 eligible voters. And when I say eligible, that also is important because Taiwan does not have absentee voting. You need to go to where you are registered and put a piece of paper in a box. And there is historical reasons for that. Some of it is perhaps gamesmanship on the part of parties of who would benefit more from absentee voting, but it also is a sense of that as a system that is not impossible but extremely difficult to hack, right? And so when you want to have confidence in the integrity of the process, people will be getting on the high-speed rail and the slower speed rail and going back to their household registered address to vote. 

So and there’s about one million voters who are first-time voters. And the voting age here is twenty. There was actually an opportunity to lower that via a voter referendum a couple years ago that failed. And it largely failed because the threshold to pass a referenda like that is very high. But you still had several million people vote against it. So this is a population with—I think it still has the lowest birth rate in the world. I mean, lower than Singapore or Japan, though, I heard that Taipei City got a bit of a boost last year. Perhaps because they have a young, vibrant mayor, Chiang Wan-an. But that’s always say there’s a lot of older people who their interests are sometimes divergent from the younger population. 

Older population, concerned about pensions. There’s been pension reform. Making sure that the public health system, which is very strong and egalitarian, holds on. And that’s very expensive. Younger voters, more concerned about things like the price of housing. It’s very expensive to buy housing. So there’s talk about sort of preferential loans to first-time homebuyers, especially under a certain age. So we do have different issues speaking to different groups. 

You also have that Ko—so, former Mayor Ko, Ko Wen-je, the third party candidate—he tends to do well with younger voters, particularly younger male voters. And that’s—the male part is more about his personality, but the younger voters has to do with fatigue with the longstanding KMT-DPP—just that ongoing battle between those two parties. And Ko is a particularly challenging candidate to run against, because he does an excellent job of just saying: I’m not TPP. I’m not KMT. I’m something different, I’m going to be pragmatic—without actually articulating policies.  

And so he essentially just says: Give me a chance to bring some new, different energy. And he was mayor of Taipei. So he has run something before. He’s not just someone who’s completely new to politics. But he really has sort of galvanized this if you’re tired of what we’ve had, why not, you know, shake things up and give me a chance? I’d say too that with the— 

STARES: And he’s—sorry, Maggie—he’s likely to take votes from whom, or both? 

LEWIS: More from the blue, more from the KMT. However, this youth vote portion would be taken from the DPP. So he takes votes from both parties. The sense is more from the KMT, but it isn’t just a straight up he’s taking votes only from the KMT. And then I’ll just say finally that, you know, the—both the KMT and the DPP had candidates who chose vice presidential candidates who were important for speaking to the presidential candidate’s weaknesses. So on the KMT side, Hou Yu-ih not a dyed in the wool, deep blue since the moment he was born. He joined the KMT fairly late in life. His family is from heritage that was in Taiwan before the Chinese—the Chinese Civil War. So he’s a different sort of brand than the Ma Ying-jeous or that group.  

And he said yesterday, especially after Ma Ying-jeou gave an interview that was quite controversial—this is former mayor—or, former President Ma—that at his press conference Hou Yu-ih we went out of his way to make clear, without saying Ma by name, but he’s a different KMT. So we’re seeing a lot of texture within the KMT. But his vice presidential pick, Jaw Shaw-kong, is deep blue. And so he was seen as a choice to really get the base excited about this ticket, to sort of, you know, if there were concerns that Hou wasn’t KMT enough, that he was with a running mate who really had those credentials. 

On the DPP side, with this hesitancy about, you know, what is Lai’s true heart with respect to his desires for Taiwan’s future, very wisely chose Hsiao Bi-Khim, the, you know, up until very recently based in D.C., highly effective representative of Taiwan, to speak to the international audiences and particularly the D.C. audience. But she also is someone who is popular here, especially with women. And so that was also supplementing some of the things that Lai was a little weaker on. 

STARES: Great. OK. Why don’t we now open it up to those on the line? Just a reminder to give us your name and affiliation and keep your questions relatively concise. Preferably just one, if you can. I’m going to hand it back to Emily to manage the Q&A. Thank you. 

OPERATOR: Thanks, Paul. 

(Gives queuing instructions.) 

Our first question comes from Ellen Ioanes. 

Q: Hi, this is Ellen Ionas with Vox. Vox with a V, not Fox with an F. 

I wanted to see if we could get a little bit more detail about how each of the candidates proposes to handle Taiwan’s military needs. There’s, you know, a sense that Taiwan is perhaps overly reliant on the U.S. for defense. So how does each of the candidates propose to maybe deal with that in a more—in a more localized way? 

STARES: I think that’s best for you, David. 

SACKS: Sure. So I’m happy to take that. So I think, first of all, you know, the context that the winner will assume the presidency in is that defense spending has nearly doubled over the last eight years under Tsai Ing-wen. She tripled the length of conscription from four months to one year. And she’s put a lot of effort into developing Taiwan’s indigenous defense industrial base.  

And I think that, you know, as she looks back at some of her biggest achievements, I think she would list the indigenous defense submarine or IDS program near the top of the list. Taiwan just unveiled the first prototype hull a couple of months ago, and they plan on producing, I think, up to a dozen of those. It’s a quite complex, expensive program. But also taking lessons from the war in Ukraine, she’s put more effort into expanding the production of missiles. And Taiwan does have indigenous missiles that are quite capable, including anti-ship missiles. As well as drones, where Taiwan didn’t really have a program to speak of until recently.  

And so I don’t really see huge differences among the candidates. The KMT traditionally has kind of put defense on the backburner. Under Ma, you know, he shortened conscription from one year to four months. The defense spending was largely stagnant. And he also reduced the size of Taiwan’s military during that period. You know, and it wasn’t all his doing, but Taiwan got the reputation for really prioritizing the big shiny objects over the kind of—what we would call the asymmetric platforms that it should be prioritizing. 

And so a lot of that, you know, I would argue has begun to be reversed. And I don’t think that the KMT’s candidate, Hou Yu-ih, really sees a return to the Ma era as viable or even desirable. So, again, if you look at his Foreign Affairs essay, he has quite a robust defense policy platform of raising the defense budget, pursuing some of these asymmetric systems, joint exercises and interoperability with the United States, as well as elevating what’s called the All-out Defense Mobilization Council to a Cabinet-level position, which is really intended to work on societal issues around mobilization and coordination during a conflict.  

You know, Ko Wen-je has supported the extension of conscription to one year, has even said that it might not be sufficient for training really specialized personnel. He has set 3 percent as the target for—3 percent of GDP as the target for defense spending. Right now, it’s around 2.5 percent. He’s talked about, you know, some kind of changes to the procurement system, although it’s unclear what those are. I think he wants more tech transfer from the United States to help Taiwan build up its own defense industrial base. And Lai has basically said: I’ll continue what Tsai Ing-wen has done. 

The one kind of wedge issue that kind of emerged for twenty-four hours and then disappeared was on the question of conscription, where Hou Yu-ih, after that was announced, said: Well, you know, I would reduce it back to four months if I’m elected. I think that was a pretty naked attempt to try to get—to try to get young voters who don’t want to be conscripted. But after he saw the backlash to that, as well as the fact that it does have bipartisan support—Tsai Ing-wen put that proposal to the legislature for a vote and it received overwhelming support—Hou Yu-ih kind of backtracked and said he was misunderstood or wouldn’t necessarily do that. 

But I think that the question that that remains with Hou Yu-ih is there has been some sense that—among observers, that, you know, investing in defense is kind of—is linked to the cross-strait situation. And that if he judges, once in office, the cross-strait threat is diminishing because there’s more engagement and more interaction, might he pull back the reins and say, well, we don’t need to keep raising defense spending. We can use this money elsewhere. And we don’t need to buy these weapons because, you know, we have cross-strait under control. 

And I think that that’s where there’s going to be a lot of kind of focus on the outside on kind of making sure that these two are not really seen as linked. That defense policy and defense spending has to be seen as independent of cross-strait dynamics. And so—but again, you know, at a 30,000-foot level, I don’t think that there’s a meaningful difference on defense policy here. I think that, you know, all of them have said that they will continue to pursue the submarine program, to overhaul Taiwan’s reserves, to focus on mobilization, civil defense, and raise the top-line budget. 

But, Maggie, I think you wanted to add some briefly to that as well. 

LEWIS: Yeah, just a couple of things on that. You know, I think there’s wide agreement that Taiwan needs an asynchronous defense strategy. But you ask a dozen people what that means and you’ll get a dozen different interpretations of what asynchronous really, when the rubber hits the road, is in practice. I’d say on the KMT side, there—you see too sort of a generational tension, because, yes, then-President Ma Ying-jeou met Xi Jinping in 2015 and was able to talk to him. But the Xi Jinping and the China of 2015 is very different than the Xi Jinping and the China of 2024. So sometimes I sense some frustration against the people who are really working on the KMT now, saying, like, we’re dealing with a different reality. And so if, you know, people in our party say, well, we can talk to China, we can work it out, you know, there’s a real—some tension, I think, about where they see the possibilities with that. 

And finally, on the conscription issue, I think generally now that, you know, people are getting comfortable with this idea of being it twelve months, there’s a lot of conversation about not just the quantity, now that that seems to be pretty well established, but the quality of that twelve months. Because, notoriously, it was a lot of sort of planting grass or painting barracks, and not necessary very effective military training, so there’s a lot of conversations about what will happen then. 

And then, outside of the young men who will engage in conscription, this idea of this more whole-of-society resilience; and how do you make it so people have the skills, whether it be tying a tourniquet or doing, you know, sort of disaster relief skills that are helpful both during an earthquake or if there were some sort of military engagement. And that’s tricky because none of the parties want to seem to be yelling, you know, the sky is falling tomorrow and having a sense of panic. But under President Tsai, she has done a lot to sort of slowly and steadily make it so it’s clear that this isn’t just about what MND—what the Ministry of National Defense does, but this really has to be a much broader conversation about how society can be resilient in the face of threats. And certainly Ukraine brought that to the fore. 

STARES: Great. David if I can just go back to you and pick up some of the things you said earlier, it’s my understanding that Vice President Lai has sort of emphasized closer ties with Taiwan’s neighbors, particularly Japan, as a potential ally in any kind of cross-strait contingency. 

Can you say a little bit more about that? Is that in any way a liability—and this I guess goes to you, Maggie—domestically, that Taiwan is moving closer to some countries in the region, particularly Japan, or do they welcome it? 

SACKS: Yeah, so, you know, it’s interesting because, of course, there is the historical kind of legacy there; Taiwan was a Japanese colony. And yet when you look at public polling and you look at Taiwanese sentiments towards Japan—again, some of it varies from poll to poll—but some show that affection towards Japan is the highest of any foreign country, even more than America. And so it’s usually the United States and Japan up there as the top countries in terms of how Taiwanese view them and have positive sentiments towards. 

So there is really—I mean, I would say a lot of it is rooted in culture and education, and less about thinking about potential conflict, and contingencies, and what Japan’s role would be. But that’s a very strong baseline to work from. 

Now I would note, though, that during the eight years of the Ma presidency, from 2008 to 2016, you know, there was an issue over the Senkakus because Taiwan—you know, the nine-dash line that the PRC uses originates with an ROC map where it’s actually an 11-dash line, and Taiwan technically claims the Senkakus just like the PRC does. And so that was a source of friction in Taiwan-Japan relations for those years. And there was a fisheries agreement struck between Ma and the Japanese government towards the end of his tenure, but that was really after quite a rocky period in Taiwan’s relationship with Tokyo, a lot of it stemming out of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. 

But since then, you know, Taiwan’s relationship with Japan has really blossomed. You know, when China barred the import of Taiwanese pineapples, Japan really led an effort—not through the government but really at a grassroots level—to buy up these Taiwanese pineapples, and I think Taiwan’s export actually ended up increasing as a result of that. So they didn’t really bear much cost from China’s actions. 

Japan also donated a lot of COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan during the pandemic before Taiwan was able to get a lot of these vaccines. Taiwan has been very forward-leaning on disaster relief to Japan after earthquakes and other severe weather events, and the United States—the final point on that—the United States and Taiwan came up with this thing called the Global Cooperation and Training Framework in 2015, which is basically trying to solve the problem of, you know, Taiwan is excluded from all of these international organizations, so how can we actually get them interacting with countries around the world, learning best practices on things like, you know, infectious disease, and democracy, and things like that. And that was a bilateral initiative but Japan recently joined it as a full partner, so that really also, you know, is a testament to Taiwan’s growing relationship with Japan. 

Now security cooperation between Taiwan and Japan has generally been very, very—almost taboo to talk about or think about because of the historical legacy and because of how sensitive it is from Beijing’s perspective. But interestingly, you know, the candidates have all talked about security cooperation with Japan, and there has been a lot of track one-point-five, track two dialogues between Taiwan and Japan in recent years, a lot of LDP lawmakers visiting Taipei, and I think that that’s going to be a priority for anybody who wins. 

And the final note here is that, you know, I thought it was very interesting that, after securing the KMT nomination, Hou Yu-ih’s first stop was Tokyo, and as the TPP’s nominee, Ko Wen-je also visited Tokyo. Lai attended Abe’s funeral and was the senior-most Taiwanese official to go to Japan, I believe, since they severed diplomatic ties. And so there are a bunch of signals out there that this is the direction that Taiwan wants to go in. I think the door is open in Tokyo. And I think that the hope here is that this doesn’t really become a partisan issue, and that regardless of who wins the election on Saturday, that person does pursue not only Taiwan-Japan cooperation, but also potentially trilateral with the United States as well. 

STARES: Perfect, David. 

LEWIS: Yeah— 

STARES: Go ahead, Maggie. 

LEWIS: Yeah, so I’ll just add on that that the Japan-Taiwan relationship is fascinating. When I first came here twenty-plus years ago, I had before that studied in Nanjing, which of course had had, you know, absolute atrocities inflicted on it during World War II by the Japanese. And I showed up here, and it was Hello Kitty, and sushi, and I was like, you like the Japanese? You know, didn’t they colonize you for fifty years? 

And part of it was that colonization did include building roads, and buildings, infrastructure, and then of course, too, what happened after the Japanese left? Well, martial law and a population who had thousands of people die under the KMT repression. So part of it is what’s your comparator. But there’s—then it’s all to say it’s a long and largely positive relationship, but I have never heard such vocal talk about actual Japan being interested in saying vocally the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait—saying that in their defense strategy, and as David mentioned, they are part of the Global Cooperation Training Framework—the GCTF—along with Australia, so you also hear more now about how Australia has support—and I’ve heard a lot about AUKUS, you know, and how Australia is just more in the game of the Indo-Pacific, and what’s happening in more regional dynamics. 

Canada—we’ve heard about Canadian support, U.K., and so you do see this push by Taipei to try to really make it so of course the U.S. is the most important support, but to diversify. And so part of that is about sort of more the security side, but also on the diplomatic side, and the support that is helpful for getting from a broader base than just the U.S. 

So one example there—hear more and more about Resolution 2758. This was when the U.N. seat moved from the Republic of China to the PRC, now, you know, fifty—whatever—years ago. But Beijing has had a very deliberate effort to—what I would characterize as expanding the meaning of that resolution so that it not just spoke to who was having the seat—the China seat in the U.N., but having greater significance for the status of Taiwan. And Taiwan is really doing a good job of working with its likemindeds to push back on that over-interpretation. And so that has nothing to do with missiles; that’s really about diplomatic might. 

STARES: Got it. OK, we have another question I believe. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Russell Flannery. 

Q: Thanks for the invitation to join. 

David, you mentioned some possible reactions— 

STARES: Russell, could you just identify your affiliation? 

Q: Yeah, I’m an editor at Forbes, and have been reporting on Taiwan for more than twenty years. 

STARES: Thank you. 

Q: David, you mentioned some possible reactions from China in the event of a Lai win. My question is to what—it’s two parts. The first is, to what extent do you think China’s economic problems will constrain the reaction in the event of a Lai win? And you went through a number of possible reactions from China in the event of the Lai win. What do you think the international community response would be to some of those reactions that you mentioned? Thanks a lot.  

SACKS: Sure. Thanks for the question. I think that’s a good one on China’s economic difficulties. Of course, China relies a lot on ICT trade with Taiwan, semiconductors but also other inputs that are manufactured in China and then re-exported. And I think if you look at, you know, the waves of trade barriers that China has erected during the eight years of the Tsai administration, when you had, for instance, Speaker Pelosi’s visit or Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy, and things of that nature, you know, they weren’t necessarily that costly from China’s perspective—you know, frozen grouper, pineapples, things of that nature. China really left the core cross-strait trade and ICT products unaffected. And so I would be quite surprised if China, you know, given its economic difficulties, went for any of those things, which really would hurt Taiwan but would also hurt China’s economy a lot as well. So I think on the economic side, a lot of it is very targeted at, you know, regions of Taiwan that tend to vote for the DPP, so it is meant to really split the island, so if you vote for the DPP, you know, your companies will suffer, but if you’re from a KMT place or you vote for the KMT, you’re safe. And so I think that they’ll continue to do that very narrowly targeted, you know, economic sanctions on Taiwan, and I think that they’ll also choose products that are not the core of cross-strait trade which would hurt China just as much, if not more, than they hurt Taiwan. But, you know, my only other point on that is China’s already, you know, sanctioned a lot of those products and so there’s very few left that they can target to send a message without really touching the core of the trade.  

And on what the United States, you know, can or should do in response to that, I think that a lot of this is going to be in the public diplomacy realm, and it’s going to be to urge China to speak to Taiwan’s democratically elected leader and to resume communication. I don’t think the United States is going to take a view on what that formula should be for cross-strait dialogue. We’ve never taken a stance one way or the other on the 1992 consensus, for instance, and I don’t think it would be smart for us to begin to do that. So we’re not going to actually weigh in on what the content of that should be, but it’s going to be to urge China to resume cross-strait interactions with Taiwan, as well as probably some kind of a deterrent package if China really does ramp up the military pressure on Taiwan. 

Now, on the economic side, you know, we do have this twenty-first-century U.S.-Taiwan trade initiative which recently—there was reached agreement on the first element of it, and Taiwan touts this as the first and I think only trade agreement that the Biden administration has pursued with a partner. But, you know, Taiwan is also still hurting that they’re not a part of IPEF. Now, you know, we could argue about how useful IPEF is, especially after shelving the announcement around the APEC summit’s—you now, around market access and things of that nature. But at least symbolically Taiwan wants to be a part of that. And Lai and Hou have both publicly said that they would hope to join IPEF. And so I imagine that that’s part of the conversation that will occur, to at least symbolically show the PRC that they can’t isolate Taiwan and that the United States is going to bring them into other kinds of other economic, you know, organizations. Taiwan also wants to join CPTPP. Of course, the United States is not a member of that. You know, Ko Wen-je has said basically, well, it’s useless because China’s going to block us anyway, so we shouldn’t invest any time or effort in that. But Lai and Hou have both said that joining CPTPP is a priority. So I’m not sure how likely that is, but I imagine that Taiwan would also pursue that as a way to, you know, to build their own economic resilience, reduce dependence on China if there are additional trade barriers and restrictions, and, you know, the question then is to what extent is Japan and other members willing to take the political heat to get Taiwan into that trade pact? 

STARES: Great. Anything you want to add, Maggie? 

LEWIS: I think in the interest of time, let’s take another question. 

STARES: OK. Is there anybody in the queue? I don’t see anybody.  

Maggie, you mentioned women’s issues, social issues. Is there anything particular—I think I read somewhere about the death penalty briefly coming up in the elections. Could you say some of the other sort of hot button issues that have at least temporarily sort of come to the fore here? 

LEWIS: I think there’s broad consensus that the issues that are really driving voters—this is not going to be unique to Taiwan—are going to be issues about these—international relations and cross-strait relations, as well as economic issues. I mentioned housing is very expensive. That’s something that comes up. Wages have stagnated and sort of what is the economic future of Taiwan. Semiconductors—TSMC can’t be the only driver indefinitely, so what is sort of going to be Taiwan’s economic future? 

Energy issues are also important. Taiwan is highly dependent on energy imports. President Tsai has tried to push a green energy not revolution but at least transition, using more solar, more wind, but that’s limited in what it can do. 

And then there are these social issues that come up. 

So, for example, I think probably everyone on this call knows that Taiwan was the first jurisdiction, whatever you want to call it, in Asia that legalized same-sex marriage. As a lawyer and a law professor, I love to emphasize that that was done because the constitutional court said it had to be done, which also—we talked so much about the president’s and the executive branch and the legislative branch, but the courts are important here too, especially when it comes to these issues that might not immediately come up through a popular vote but once the constitutional court said it had to be done, then the legislature, with some very political savvy of then-Premier Su, pushed that through. And you’ll see, even last night, there were rainbow flags at the DPP rally, so that’s there. 

Women’s issues come up in part, too, with the low birthrate. There’s a number of reasons for that, and one has to do with still-traditional views of motherhood that persevere, and demands on that, and the lack, still, of really good childcare and how that burden disproportionately falls on women. 

With respect to human rights: Death penalty is something which we expect to continue in Taiwan. It is largely popular. But there are civil society groups that continue to really find that a small segment of the population agrees that it should be abolished. 

And I’ll say, too, that one issue that I think is very important and we try to push on as international observers but that does not get great traction is immigration reform. In part, this should be more of an issue because this is what Taiwan needs to get its population, a young population. It’s not going to do it organically. And there are a number of migrant, but most of those are temporary migrant, laborers. They’re working cleaning the factories. They’re working to take care of the elderly. But they don’t have a great path to, you know, long-term residency, let alone citizenship. And that’s—and also Taiwan, for all it saying it’s engaged with international human rights norms, does not have a refugee law. This is particularly fraught, especially about what to do with people from Hong Kong, some of who have been here for years now but have uncertain status, and that’s fraught for political reasons, domestically as well as cross-strait reasons, but I can expect all of these sort of social dynamics, human rights issues to carry on certainly to 2028 and beyond. 

STARES: Terrific. OK, we have, I think, literally two minutes left. I’m going to put both of you on the spot to make a final prediction on what you know now of the outcome on Saturday, if in fact we’ll learn on Saturday the actual outcome. So, David, I’m going to go with you first. How are you going to call this? 

SACKS: Yeah. OK, well, that’s fraught. I’ll go out there and say that I think that Lai will pull off a victory, but I don’t think that he’ll get a majority of the votes, and I don’t think that the DPP is going to gain control of the legislature, which sets up some issues that Maggie was alluding to earlier in her comments, which is about, you know, who forms the majority coalition, and if that’s Ko Wen-je, the Taiwan People’s Party, are they going to work with the KMT to block a DPP administration? Are they going to work with the DPP to form a majority and push an agenda forward? And so, you know, I think that, as Maggie said as well, Ko Wen-je has kind of dipped in the polls a lot, especially since over the course of the fall, but he could still be a very important political figure in the next four years, because his political party could really advance the agenda of the—of the party in power and the president or it could act as a roadblock and put a lot of—a lot of sand in the gears, so to speak. 

And then my question, then, goes to some of the foreign policy and defense issues that we—that we spoke about at the top, which is that if you have a parliament that is controlled by the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, do they then try to make defense issues a political football, and say that we’re not going to pass special budgets, and we’re not going to procure these weapons, and we’re going to spend less on defense? And that is something that has happened before in Taiwan’s not-too-distant past. Both parties are guilty of doing that. Again, I think the context has changed enough now where I don’t think that that’s going to happen, but it’s something to keep an eye out on. 


Maggie, last word to you. 

LEWIS: I agree with David that that’s the most likely outcome. But again, this feels very different than 2020, when at that point the KMT candidate, Han Kuo-yu, was melting in the polls, and so it was really by this point a question about by how much would President Tsai get reelected, not if she would. 

My main prediction is that we will know on Saturday night. Polls close at four. Immediately, the votes start being counted. They put out stools. You can watch them count votes. It goes to the Central Election Commission. So I am confident that we will have a result on Saturday night, unlike what we now experience commonly in the United States. 

And my final prediction is for the journalists on this, that I will likely be having a lovely dinner on the west side of Daan Park with some of your colleagues after they file their stories. So, with that happy culinary note, thanks to everyone for tuning in. 

STARES: Thank you. Thank you, Maggie. I hope you are able to catch up on some sleep. Really appreciate you tuning in so early today. And thank you, David, too, for just a terrific overview of the—particularly the foreign policy issues at stake here. 

So that is it for now. We thank you all for joining us today, both in the media and our corporate members. And we look forward to seeing you again soon. So thank you. 


Top Stories on CFR

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*


Far-right advances in the European Parliament elections have destabilized politics in France, a longstanding pillar of the European Union, and highlighted fault lines in the bloc.