Photo Credit: Lai Ching-te/Facebook
The following article is part of a special joint issue between New Bloom and Taiwan Insight on the 2024 elections.
NOW THAT THE election results are in, the period of intense suspense and electoral speculation has concluded. The issue of cross-strait relations remains unresolved, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) insists that the Republic of China (ROC), often known as Taiwan, is a separatist province of the mainland and aims for reunification. For the first time in history, Taiwan has re-elected the same political party to govern the democratic island for a third consecutive term. The election of Lai Ching-te on Saturday signifies a strong counter to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) forceful stance and intimidation tactics towards the island. The primary challenge now is how Lai’s new government will maintain its relations with Beijing and navigate the complex triangular dynamics of the US, China, and Taiwan.
Besides that, two more challenges remain: 1) the DPP has lost its majority in the parliament, and 2) Its biggest strategic partner, the US, is heavily engaged in Ukraine and the Middle East and might be busy with its presidential election later this year. However, besides the complex triangular dynamics, cross-strait relations and domestic governance issues, another angle remains often less analysed: what would be Lai’s new government’s approach and outreach mechanism towards Asia-Pacific, especially to New Southbound countries (South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand)?
Lai Ching-te’s Smart Power ‘Four-Pillar Plan’ and the Asia-Pacific
LAI CHING-TE WROTE an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last year in July, where he outlined his ‘four-pillar’ peace plan regarding the future of Taiwan. De-coding his four-pillar plan shows that Lai seeks to employ a Smart Power tactic combining hard power (military and economic) and value and ideational-based soft power dimensions.
Military and Security
HIS FIRST AND FOREMOST important aspect was bolstering military and defence capability, aiming at reducing the possibility of invasion and making it a costly option to choose for Beijing. These would mean taking steps similar to what was done during Tsai’s administration, like increasing defence expenditure, building reserve systems, submarine building programmes, and civil defence relevant to the island’s security. Besides internal balancing, Lai aspires for external balancing to nurture its security partnership further with likely-minded partners and allies. Any formal defence and security cooperation with most New Southbound Policy (NSP) countries are unlikely. However, the visit of three former Indian service chiefs to a forum on Indo-Pacific security in Taiwan and the expression of the possibility of increasing ties in defence manufacturing, R&D and space, information technology, and module technology reflects some emerging interest from New Delhi.
Also, Lai’s government might look to engage further NSP country’s security experts in conferences and forums like the Ketagalan Forum in Taiwan and might want to have greater representation at major security gatherings, as invited in the Munich Security Conference in 2023. Taiwan’s defence and security outlook will mainly circle its longtime strategic partner, the US, and Asia’s regional middle power, Japan, who share a similar vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
LAI ALSO PLACES a high priority on economic security. Taiwan’s economy, being heavily trade-dependent on Mainland China, has created vulnerabilities in its economic security paradigm. Working alongside Tsai, Lai has recognised the importance and necessity of diversifying the island’s trade patterns. Tsai administration has successfully reduced the export dependency on the PRC and made some breakthroughs with NSP countries, the US, the UK, Canada and Europe. Between 2016 and 2022, the bilateral trade between Taiwan and NSP countries grew by almost 88.2 per cent, with significant investment growth. According to Miniter of Economic Affairs of ROC Wang Mei-hua, in 2022, Taiwanese businesses have invested in South and Southeast more than mainland China for the first time. Also, the NSP has made Australia increase investment growth, energy cooperation, and trade with Taiwan. Taiwan’s vibrant trading and economic relations led the island to seek support for its admission to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) from New Zealand and Australia.
NSP’s non-security and non-political focus has allowed Taiwan to enhance economic engagement without entering Beijing’s radar. The economic diplomacy angle of Lai’s plan has the most significant potential to enhance relations with NSP countries. However, Lai’s cabinet might face a greater challenge if Beijing pushes to restrict these NSP countries to maintain unofficial economic engagement with Taiwan, which the PRC has not paid much attention to. Beijing’s carrot and stick diplomacy, like the pineapple ban in 2021 and some fishery and some beverages in 2022 (later withdrawing them), makes policymakers like Lai rethink Taiwan’s economic statecraft. The PRC may come out of the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement blocking the tariff-free entry of several hundred categories of Taiwanese goods inked during Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) government. Therefore, Lai will follow in Tsai’s footsteps and encourage Taiwan’s businesses to diversify further, increase their investment and export to South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and think beyond mainland China.
Democracy: Value and Ideational-Based Engagement
ANOTHER PILLAR OF Lai’s vision of peace in the Taiwan Strait is enhancing partnership and engagement based on democratic values and principles. Taiwan’s transition from dictatorship to practising democracy makes the island a well-cited case study of democratisation worldwide. However, Tsai’s DPP government branding of democratic values, principles and vision has undoubtedly received more international focus and got soft corners, particularly among democratic countries. During Taiwan’s National Day celebrations in 2023, Tsai mentioned, “We have brought the international spotlight to Democratic Taiwan”. Also, right after the election results were announced, Lai mentioned, “We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy”.
Over recent years, the portrayal of a vibrant democracy has enabled the DPP government to attract visits from parliamentary groups, academic scholars, think tanks, and non-governmental organisations, fostering collaboration with NSP countries and beyond. For example, in the case of India-Taiwan relations, think tanks have played a pivotal role in deepening mutual interest and fostering cooperation. The academic collaboration has also led Indian scholars to mention that “Realities in the Indo-Pacific region have changed, and it’s time for New Delhi to deepen its political ties with Taipei”. Also, the Institute of Foreign Services of India now arranges talks on cross-strait relations for foreign service officer’s new batch. There have been growing academic collaborations between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries. The University of Malaya has established a Taiwan Studies lectures programme to deepen the educational and academic collaboration between Malaysia and Taiwan. Taiwan’s international cooperation and extending humanitarian outreach in the COVID-19 and Ukraine wars have uplifted its global democratic political image. Therefore, Lai’s vision seeks to further embrace the “Taiwan Can Help” attitude towards the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
The Democratic Progressive Party has effectively leveraged the democracy versus autocracy debate as a strategy in its two-level game. This implies that the narrative contrasting democracy with authoritarianism proved successful domestically and aided Taiwan in garnering increased international attention. Therefore, the ideational and value-based two levels (domestic and international) have seen some light of success under Tsai, in which Lai has shown similar interest. Also, Lai’s ‘Four Piller’ plan shows the importance of utilising track 1.5 (Government officials participating in an unofficial capacity along with non-governmental experts) and track 2 (unofficial representations with no government participation), given Taiwan’s very limited diplomatic allies and formal international outreach mechanism.
Principled Cross-Strait Leadership
AS THIS ASPECT of Lai’s vision pertains to cross-strait relations and upholding the status quo, it does not have a direct connection with Taiwan’s interactions within the Asia-Pacific region. While cross-strait relations themselves might not directly influence Taiwan’s outreach towards NSP countries, any escalating tensions across the strait could undermine and impede initiatives established by the Tsai administration. The approach taken by Lai and the reactions from Beijing will be pivotal in shaping the future of the island’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. Consequently, maintaining peace over the Taiwan Strait will indirectly affect Taiwan’s ability to allocate resources towards strengthening its relations with NSP countries.
IN EVALUATING LAI’S ‘Four-Pillar Plan’, it is apparent that his strategies for engaging with the Asia-Pacific region mirror those of Tsai. In addition to enhancing relations with Western nations, Taiwan is set to persist in its efforts to strengthen ties and foster friendships with the countries involved in the New Southbound Policy. However, much remains uncertain, and much also hinges on the shifting global geopolitical landscape, the dynamics of cross-strait relations, and the challenges arising from a divided parliament. It is likely that Lai’s administration will face more difficult challenges compared to his predecessor.