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China’s Response to the Taiwan Elections – A Return of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy?

What is happening?

Beijing paid close attention to the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan. While Xi Jinping repeated his declaration of the “inevitability” of (re)unification of both sides of the Taiwan Strait in his New Year address, Taiwanese people have virtually no appetite for forming a union with the autocratic People’s Republic of China. Beijing’s initial response to the free and fair elections in Taiwan has been relatively muted – particularly compared to cross-strait tensions surrounding the first free presidential elections in Taiwan in 1996 or the more recent visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Nevertheless, the PRC perpetuates its aggressive rhetoric and efforts to constrain Taiwan’s international space. It is thus important to monitor whether we will see a reemergence of “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” around the Taiwan issue in the crucial next four months ahead of William Lai’s (Ching-te Lai; 賴清德) inauguration.

What is the broader picture?

The unprecedented third presidential term for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was not positive news for China, which attempted to interfere in Taiwanese elections for several months leading to the race.

The first official commentary on the results of the Taiwanese elections came on January 13, when the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Chen Binhua (陳斌華) claimed that despite its victory, “Democratic Progressive Party does not represent the mainstream public opinion on the island.” Chen referred to the fact that the Kuomintang, which supports “normalization” of cross-strait ties, gained more seats in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral legislature. Beijing perceives the DPP as “Taiwan independence separatists” and refuses to engage in dialogue with politicians affiliated with the party. In the same statement, Chen Binhua expressed the Chinese side’s willingness to “work with relevant political parties,” referring again to the KMT.

Different actors in the PRC speak with one voice when it comes to the “Taiwan issue.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) stated at a press conference in Egypt that, the elections of the Taiwan region belong to the affairs of a region in China.”  He further claimed that “Taiwan has never been a country, it was not in the past and it will never be in the future!” and continued to issue threats to the Taiwan citizens and the international community:

“Anyone on the island of Taiwan who wants to pursue “Taiwan independence” is to split China’s territory and will be severely punished by history and law. Anyone who violates the one-China principle in the international community is interfering in China’s internal affairs and infringing on China’s sovereignty, and will surely be opposed by the entire Chinese people and even the international community.”… and that “China will eventually achieve complete reunification and Taiwan will return to the embrace of the motherland.”

While the PRC government is unequivocal regarding its perception of the Taiwan issue, tracking Chinese public opinion proves more challenging. China’s netizens were not allowed to discuss this “internal matter of the PRC” online. According to WhatsonWeibo, hashtags referring to the Taiwanese elections, such as “Taiwan elections” (#台灣選舉), or “Lai Ching-te wins the 2024 Taiwan regional leadership election” (#賴清德赢得2024年台灣地區領導人選舉) were blocked on Chinese social media. Later, when the state media issued an official statement, the hashtag “Taiwan is part of China, this basic fact won’t change” (#台灣是中國一部分的基本事實不會改變) emerged on China’s social network Weibo, but only comments stating “There is only one China” were visible.

Not only does the Chinese government dictate what (not) to think or (not) to say to its citizens, but also it seeks exercise similar power over key stakeholders in other countries. In Chinese nomenclature, this effort is known as “discourse power” or “the right to speak” (話語權), and it is closely associated with the PRC government and media discourse about efforts to “tell China’s story well” (講好中國故事). As a result, many state leaders and top diplomats remained very vague when referring to the Taiwanese election and failed to directly address the president-elect William Lai in their congratulatory messages.

France and Germany highlighted the democratic principles and values enrooted in Taiwan and congratulated “those elected.” The European External Action Service addressed their congratulations only towards the voters. Czech President Petr Pavel was the first European head of state to congratulate the Taiwanese people on the democratic election, but he also avoided naming the winner. Meanwhile, he expressed his hope that Czech relations with Taiwan will continue to “develop successfully in many different areas also with the new Taiwanese leadership.” Pavel’s cautious message can be contrasted with the statement issued by Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who addressed Lai directly. Czechia and Lithuania are broadly regarded as the most Taiwan-friendly countries in Europe.

The PRC’s directed its harshest responses towards those who directly congratulate William Lai on his victory in the presidential election.

In the U.S. statement, which explicitly addressed Lai, Washington confirmed that its future collaboration with the Lai administration would remain “consistent with the U.S. One-China Policy,” but it was not enough to satisfy the Chinese foreign ministry. Its spokesperson responded by accusing the U.S. of sending a “gravely wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”

By saying that the elections “are testament to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy” and offering “warm congratulations to the people of Taiwan on the smooth conduct of those elections and to Dr. Lai Ching-te and his party on his election,” the British Foreign Secretary David Cameron angered the Chinese embassy in the UK which firmly opposed the statement and urged London to “refrain from any words or actions that interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

In response to Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s congratulations to “President-elect Lai Ching-te on his election as Taiwan’s next president,” the PRC MFA spokesperson warned the Philippines about “playing with fire on the Taiwan question” and advised President Marcos to “read more to develop a proper understanding of the ins and outs of the Taiwan question and come to a right conclusion.”

Among other scolded parties were Australia, Singapore, and Japan. On the other hand, those who condemned the “Taiwan independence” were applauded by the Chinese spokesperson.

Why it matters?

It was a busy week for the Chinese diplomats who once again had to show their teeth. Except 18 People’s Liberation Army air force planes and Chinese warships operating around Taiwan on Wednesday after the elections, the Chinese response was not as severe as expected.

A possible explanation is that, from the PRC’s point of view, the election result is not completely unsatisfactory. While no party gained an absolute majority in the Legislative Yuan, the largest number of seats (52 out of 113) went to the KMT which will likely seek close collaboration with the Taiwan People’s Party (8 seats) and the two independent legislators. The divided government may become a major headache for Lai and result in gridlock on issues such as defense modernization. Additionally, China will continue to constrict Taiwan’s international space. A mere two days after the elections, the ROC lost one diplomatic ally, the Pacific Island country of Nauru. Others might follow Yaren’s suit and bow to the Chinese dictator in the future. It will thus be crucial for the new Taiwanese government to strengthen and secure bonds with its democratic partners.