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Event Report: “The 2024 Taiwan Election and its Implications for the Defence of Democracy”


Brussels, Wednesday 31st Jan. Yes, this is what I do on Wednesday afternoons. Let those among us who are not as excited as I was to learn about the details of Taiwan's 2024 elections and what they could mean on a broader scale, cast the first stone. The event, organised by three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who have a deep understanding of Taiwan's unique situation as a small democracy neighbouring a large authoritarian country, promised to offer valuable insights. These MEPs — Andrey Kovatchev (European People's Party), Andrius Kubilius (European People's Party), and Andrus Ansip (Renew) — come from Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Estonia, respectively. These countries have first-hand experience with Russian expansionism. Indeed, today they are among the strongest supporters of Ukraine, another target of Russian aggression that is sometimes likened to Taiwan.


Officials, academics, business representatives, and other MEPs like Reinhard Bütikofer and David Lega were among the 40 attendees in the room, with many more participating online. The conference opener was provided by Dr. Roy Chun Lee, head of the Taipei Representative Office in the EU and Belgium. Dr Lee started by giving us a rundown of Taiwan’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections which took place on 13th January. Lai Ching-te, representing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the presidential election with 40.05% of the vote. His opponents from the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) got 33.49% and 26.46% respectively. In the Parliamentary elections, the DPP lost 10 seats, while the KMT won 14 and the TPP won 3. The election was celebrated worldwide as a successful exercise in democracy due to its high turnout of over 70%, lively debates, and prompt concession speeches after the results. It also took place despite serious interference efforts from Beijing, especially against the DPP. The fact that the DPP's candidate still won the presidency, therefore, shows the resilience of Taiwanese voters. Dr. Lee said the election saw “four winners and one loser.” He added, “The DPP won the Presidential election; the KMT increased its seat count in Parliament; the TPP received over a quarter of votes despite being only four years old; and while the Taiwanese people won, Beijing lost.”


The conference's first speaker, J. Michael Cole, highlighted that despite strong pressure from China, the Taiwanese people stood firm. Cole, a Research Fellow at the Prospect Foundation, outlined three key tactics used in what he labelled China’s “intimidation” campaign. Beijing-linked media worked to discredit the DPP, painting them as corrupt and aggressive, while influencers on platforms such as TikTok spread messages favouring reunification with the mainland and criticising the DPP. Beijing also increased military activity and engaged in provocative tactics including crossing the median line, entering Taiwanese airspace, and even deploying spy balloons similar to those seen over U.S. airspace in February 2023. This strategy aimed not just to show off military power, but also to pushTaiwan into a difficult position: either respond and risk escalation or appear weak by not reacting. China also threatened economic consequences in the form of trade sanctions if the DPP won, and pressured other countries to downplay support for Taiwan's election, undermining its legitimacy. (VOA, 2023).


China's actions in the Taiwanese election reflect its long-term strategy toward reunification—a “gradual encroachment of the island”, as noted Gray Sergent from the Council on Geostrategy, the next speaker. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aims to ‘rejuvenate’ the nation (according to a speech made by Xi Jinping at the ceremony for the centenary of the CCP) seeking to restore its global leadership position by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China's founding (Xinhua, 2021). Within this ambition, Taiwan's reunification is seen as crucial by the CCP. However, the Taiwanese people made their stance clear in the January 13th elections—they do not share the Communist Party's vision. Democracy holds significant value for the Taiwanese, who view it as a source of pride.


But Taiwan’s election carries implications beyond its borders. As Sergeant noted, political scientists often describe democracy as “contagious,” and Taiwan's ability to conduct free and fair elections despite China's intense campaign against it could inspire other democratic movements across the region. Moreover, as highlighted by the three MEPs in their opening statements, in a global landscape where democracy is under threat and autocratic regimes like Russia, China, and Iran are growing bolder, the Taiwan elections marked a significant victory for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. For those advocating for democracy worldwide, supporting Taiwan becomes “imperative”, in Sergeant’s own words.


However, as explained by Valérie Niquet, Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, while the moral case for supporting Taiwan is compelling and appeals to many, pragmatic arguments rooted on geoeconomic analysis are also necessary to sway sceptics regarding the strategic significance of such support. For the European Union (EU), Taiwan holds vital economic importance, especially in the advanced semiconductor sector. Notably, Taiwanese companies like TSMC are expanding their operations into Western countries like Japan and Germany. Moreover, Europe stands as the largest investor in Taiwan and the broader Asian continent. Consequently, stability in the Taiwan Strait is not only crucial for bilateral relations but also for safeguarding its trading interests across the region. These economic factors, coupled with the commitment to upholding democracy worldwide, underscore the dual strategic and moral imperative of standing with Taiwan against the aggression from Beijing.


How do we accomplish this? First, as Niquet emphasised, it is crucial to understand what ‘supporting Taiwan’ means. Taiwan values the status quo. As Russel Hsiao from the Global Taiwan Institute noted, this is a sentiment echoed by both the EU and the United States. Therefore, Western initiatives to bolster Taiwan should focus on sending a clear message to China that any unilateral attempt to alter this status quo is unacceptable. The potential economic repercussions for China in such a scenario must be explicitly outlined. However, this may not suffice. As Dr Lee pointed out in response to an MEP's question, economic or humanitarian costs alone may not dissuade the current Chinese leadership. For them, the goal of rejuvenating the Chinese nation, which includes reunification with Taiwan by force if necessary, outweighs any economic hardships.


Theresa Fallon, Director of the Centre for Russia, Europe, and Asia Studies, proposed a three-point strategy as a blueprint for both the EU and transatlantic support for Taiwan. Firstly, she advocated for enhancing coordination within the transatlantic partnership. Any discord among Western nations regarding Taiwan could embolden Beijing, giving it the impression that it could evade severe consequences in the event of an invasion of the island. Conversely, a unified stance on Taiwan would demonstrate strength and solidarity. Secondly, Fallon urged the West to bolster its own resilience. By reducing its reliance on supply chains vulnerable to Beijing's manipulation, it can assert greater autonomy in our Taiwan policy. Thirdly, she emphasised the need to forge a coalition of deterrence, extending beyond the EU and the US to include allies like Australia and Japan. This coalition would aim to minimise the costs borne by individual sanctioning countries and amplify the effectiveness of potential sanctions. Additionally, economic sanctions should be coordinated with diplomatic and military measures to ensure a cohesive response to any actions undertaken by Beijing that might threaten stability in the Taiwan Strait. While this approach presents a dynamic challenge, with China likely to adapt, the West needs to cultivate the habit of synchronised deterrence among a broad coalition to maximise effectiveness.


As the Q&A section of the conference approached, I prepared my question: when we talk of deterrence, why do we solely focus on preventing China from invading Taiwan? What about stopping Beijing from interfering in Taiwanese elections? China's efforts failed to decisively shape the outcome of Taiwan's 2024 elections this time, but this could change in the future.. As Michael Cole highlighted, the CCP still struggles to shape a compelling narrative that can sway Taiwanese voters. However, China's tactics are likely to become more sophisticated in the future, learning from both its own experiences and Russia's successful use of disinformation and grey-zone tactics - the use of non-military means, below the threshold of armed conflict, to achieve political objectives. The Kremlin’s tactics have played a significant role in undermining democracy in the West, including the United States. If China were to match Russia's effectiveness in these areas, it could seriously threaten Taiwanese democracy. China could foster distrust, exploit local grievances, and potentially enable populist leaders to gain power, as has occurred in other democracies. Given the unpredictable nature of democracies, it is conceivable that Taiwan could witness its own version of a populist leader like Donald Trump who would seek reunification with the mainland. Furthermore, a peaceful reunification of this kind would be Beijing’s ideal solution. Therefore, alongside strengthening Taiwan's defence against military threats, it is crucial to support Taiwanese democracy in resisting grey-zone tactics. However, as Europe and the US have learned, countering such attacks on democracy is a challenging task.


Regrettably, the schedules of MEPs are quite packed, and many of us in the room were disappointed not to get the chance to ask our questions to the lineup of speakers. In any case, it is evident that the EU has begun to prioritise the Taiwan issue more seriously in recent years. Theresa Fallon, a seasoned Taiwan expert based in Brussels, echoed this sentiment. “I have been here for 17 years, and never before have I seen such interest in Taiwan.” I have been in Brussels for fewer years than that, but, like Theresa, I hope the conference on January 31 marked another significant step in the right direction.

 

CONFERENCE AGENDA


Opening remarks

MEP Andrey Kovatchev (EPP)

MEP Andrius Kubilius (EPP)

MEP Andrus Ansip (Renew)


Speakers

Dr. Roy Chun Lee – Representative, Taipei Representative Office in the EU and Belgium

J. Michael Cole – Research Fellow, Prospect Foundation

Gray Sergeant – Associate Fellow, Council on Geostrategy

Valérie Niquet – Senior Research Fellow, Fondation pour la recherche stratégique

Russel Hsiao – Executive Director, Global Taiwan Institute

Theresa Fallon – Director, Centre for Russia, Europe, Asia Studies



This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of European Guanxi, its leadership, members, partners, or stakeholders, nor of those of its editors or staff. They have been formulated by the author in their full capacity, and shall not be used for any other purposes other than those they are intended for. European Guanxi assumes no liability or responsibility deriving from the improper use of the contents of this report. Any false facts, errors, and controversial opinions contained in the articles are proper and exclusive of the authors. European Guanxi or its staff and collaborators cannot be held responsible or legally liable for the use of any and all information contained in this document.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Lukian De Boni is an Editor for the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun. He was the President of European Guanxi between 2022 and 2023. He can be found on LinkedIn and X at @Lukian_DeBoni.


This article was edited by Douglas B. Anderson, Angelo M'BA and Juan N. García-Nieto.


BIBLIOGRAPHY


VOA. (2023). China Threatens More Trade Sanctions on Taiwan as Election Nears. [online] Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/china-threatens-more-trade-sanctions-on-taiwan-as-election-nears/7414148.html


Xinhua (2021). Full Text: Speech by Xi Jinping at a ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC - Xinhua-English.news.cn. [online] Available at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2021-07/01/c_1310038244.htm



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