25 May 2024

Taiwan's democratic challenge to China

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 25 May 2024

Nearly half the world's population has or will be voting this year. The Detail takes a look at one democracy of vital importance - and it's not the United States or the UK

Taiwan, New Taipei, january 5 2024, William Lai (Lai Ching-Te) makes a victory sign during a meeting of the Democratic Progressive Party on the occasion of the campaign for the Taiwanese presidential election of 2024. Photograph by Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas. Taiwan, New Taipei, 5 janvier 2024, William Lai (Lai Ching-Te) fait un signe de victoire lors d un meeting du Parti democrate progressiste a l occasion de la campagne pour l election presidentielle taiwanaise de 2024. Photographie de Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas. (Photo by Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP)

Taiwan's new president William Lai was inaugurated on Monday. He's been branded a troublemaker by China and is President Xi Jinping's new number one enemy.  Photo: Jimmy Beunardeau / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP

Just days after Taiwan's new president called on China to stop making threats, Beijing has launched "punishment" military drills around the island.

Everyone was watching to see what China's reaction to the swearing in of President William Lai Ching-te would be. On Thursday night we found out. 

China had already postured, calling Lai calling him a dangerous separatist.

Anna Fifield, the Wellington-based Asia-Pacific editor for the Washington Post, is one of the analysts who's been watching the situation develop, and she talks to The Detail today. 

At his swearing in ceremony on Monday President William Lai Ching-te said it was up to Beijing to ensure the world is free from fear of war and reiterated that he wanted to maintain the status quo. 

The superpower's response was to start the drills involving army, navy, air force and rocket force around Taiwan.

Fifield tells The Detail that China has been conducting military exercises over the last couple of years that "look very much like preparation for an invasion".

"That is for military manoeuvres and practise but also to intimidate the Taiwanese people and just frankly to wear down the Taiwanese military," she says.    

Taiwan has never been ruled by the Communist Party but President Xi Jinpeng's ambition is for Taiwan to return as part of its One China policy, Fifield says.

"He has said that it is inevitable that Taiwan will be unified with China but he hasn't laid out how that will happen and there's a lot of conjecture around the place about whether Xi Jinpeng would order an invasion, what that would look like, when that would happen. That's something they talk about as inevitable and may try to happen in some shape or form over the next few years."

Fifield explains why the election for this self-governing island of nearly 24 million was so extraordinary in a record year for national elections.

Taiwan is a vital line of communication in the Asia-Pacific region, uncomfortably close to China for many of its people, and determined to maintain its democratic systems.

"The turnout was 72 percent, which is pretty normal in Taiwan - they take their democracy pretty seriously," she says. 

"And because you have to be in the country to vote, a lot of people fly in from elsewhere in Asia or from the US to cast their ballots for the big day." 

The polls were in favour of Lai, but his governance might be a bit rocky over the next four years because his party has lost control of the legislative Parliament. 

But even though Lai got 40 percent of the vote, it was the change in attitude of the losing parties that Fifield says is significant.

Among them were parties in favour of closer ties with China, which have had to temper their usual line and promise more defence spending for example. 

"That's a reflection I think of how the mood has shifted on the ground in Taiwan, and how more and more the Taiwanese people value their democracy, they value their freedom, the vibrant, open-minded society that they've created. 

"But the big thing that's changed in the past five years is what's happened in Hong Kong. That had always been held up as a model of 'one country, two systems', of how a place like Hong Kong could be technically part of China but still have its own system. 

"What we've seen over the past five years is China steadily erode all of that in Hong Kong ... so that civil liberties, democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly; all of that has been really sharply eroded in Hong Kong. Taiwanese people look at that and think, if that's one country two systems, we don't want it."  

Taiwan hasn't been democratic for long - just since 1997, so elections are very much a celebration. 

Taiwan is also a pioneer in Asia for equal rights and was the first to give same-sex couples the right to marry and adopt children. 

And it's the home to TSMC or Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, the world's biggest producer of advanced semi-conductors - the chips that go into our phones and computers. 

"When people look at the strategic value of Taiwan, it's not just that it's this democratic vanguard in this neighbourhood, it's also a very very key part of the global supply chain when it comes to advanced electronics and technology," she says.

"That's what causes people in particular in the United States a lot of concern about Taiwan about what if those supply chains were to go offline."

In the podcast Fifield also talks about how the US election might affect the balance of the region, and why the youth of China are staging very nuanced protests where they "lie flat". 

Check out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter