Analysis by Nectar Gan and Wayne Chang, CNN
(CNN) — Taiwanese voters have chosen a new leader in elections held under the shadow of an increasingly assertive China that has spent the past eight years ramping up its threats toward the self-ruled island.
The winner – Lai Ching-te – is Taiwan’s current vice president and openly loathed by Beijing.
The world was watching to see not only who won the election, but how democratic Taiwan’s authoritarian neighbor will respond. There, Xi Jinping – China’s most powerful leader in a generation – has called Taiwan’s unification with the mainland “a historical inevitability,” to be achieved by force if necessary.
The last time Taiwan had a change of government – when the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016 – Beijing cut off most communications with Taipei and significantly increased economic, diplomatic and military pressure on the island in the ensuing years, turning the Taiwan Strait into one of the world’s major geopolitical flash points.
China’s ruling Communist Party views Taiwan as part of its territory, despite having never controlled it. While successive Chinese Communist leaders have vowed to eventually achieve “reunification,” Xi has repeatedly said the Taiwan issue “should not be passed down generation after generation,” linking the mission to his mid-century goal of “national rejuvenation.”
“This election marks a change in leadership at a moment when cross-strait tensions are high, and preserving stability has become more of a challenge,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“A conflict involving Taiwan is unlikely in the near term. But if one were to break out, the ramifications would be globally felt,” Hsiao said.
All three candidates sold themselves as the best choice for avoiding that doomsday scenario, pledging to maintain peace and the status quo – which polls have consistently shown is what most people in Taiwan want.
But the three men also held very different visions for how to achieve that goal. They all cited the need to boost Taiwan’s defense capabilities to deter China’s aggression but disagreed on their policy priorities, particularly how to deal with Beijing.
The DPP’s Lai stressed bolstering Taiwan’s ties with like-minded democratic partners, such as the United States and Japan, while maintaining his administration’s stance that Tawain is already a de facto sovereign nation – a view Beijing deems unacceptable.
In a speech to supporters on Saturday evening Lai called his win a “victory for the community of democracies.”
“We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we still stand on the side of democracy,” he said.
In an initial response, Chen Binhua, spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Taiwan’s presidential election result “will not change the basic layout and course of development in cross-strait relations.”
“Taiwan is China’s Taiwan,” he said.
Experts had warned tension could rise further down the road regardless of who takes office, as China’s “reunification” plan has become a nonstarter for the vast majority of Taiwan’s 24 million people.
In addition to the threat from Beijing, livelihood issues such as low wages, high property prices and Taiwan’s slowly growing economy were key factors in how they vote.
China made no secret of its preference in the tight race, framing the election as a choice between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.”
Beijing openly loathes the DPP and Lai, who once described himself as “a practical worker for Taiwan independence.” Although he has moderated his position to favor the status quo, Beijing has continued to denounce him as a dangerous separatist.
On Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned Taiwan’s voters to “recognize the extreme danger of Lai Ching-te’s triggering of cross-strait confrontation and conflict,” and “to make the right choice at the crossroads of cross-strait relations.”
Lai’s victory could be quickly met with an increase in economic or military pressure by China.
“In the near term, we’re likely to see Beijing trying to use maximum pressure to set the terms for the next four years of cross-strait negotiations,” said Wen-ti Sung, a Taiwan-based fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.
It could include “intense diplomatic rhetoric that criticizes the next DPP administration, economic sanctions against targeted exports, as well as greater use of military tools in gray-zone areas as a way to register Beijing’s dissatisfaction,” he said.
China could also save a more forceful response for a later date, if a Lai delivers an inauguration speech in May that doesn’t meet Beijing’s demands, according to Hsiao.
The world will be watching the level of escalation.
In August 2022, China staged massive war games around Taiwan to show its displeasure with then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. Beijing fired missiles into waters surrounding the island and simulated a blockade with fighter jets and warships, in its largest show of force in years.
Taiwan’s security officials said Thursday they don’t expect large-scale military actions from China right after the election, citing unsuitable winter weather conditions, troubles in the Chinese economy, and efforts by Beijing and Washington to stabilize ties following a bilateral summit in November.
Lai’s win marks the first time in Taiwan’s democratic history for a political party to be elected to a third term in power – and serves as a potent sign that China’s strongarm tactics under Xi are not working to persuade Taiwanese voters to abandon the DPP.
Despite winning the presidential vote, the DPP did not secure a majority in parliamentary elections, which could lead to significant deadlocks in policy making, especially on contentious issues.
“The check that the Legislative Yuan would likely impose on a new DPP presidency should offer some degree of reassurance to Beijing on what the Lai administration can do,” Hsiao said.
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CNN’s Eric Cheung contributed reporting.