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Black and White Mosque

What Does Independence Look Like for Taiwan Post-2024 Elections?

Isabel Yamada

Summary: Tensions across the Taiwan Straits have often been identified as a potential flashpoint in the superpower rivalry between the US and China. Hence, the world watched as the Taiwanese people went to the polls in January this year — voting on, among other issues, competing notions of what independence means to Taiwan, and therefore, what its political status should be vis-a-vis the Mainland. This article unpacks how various parties and actors conceived of and understood Taiwan’s independence, and what that might mean for the country in the years to come. 


President-elect William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party, riding on the coattails of the highly popular Tsai Ing-wen, prevailed at the ballot box in the Taiwanese presidential elections in January this year. Lai, who has called himself a “practical worker for Taiwanese independence” and has described Taiwan’s sovereignty as a “fact”, campaigned on preserving the present state of affairs, wherein Taiwan, according to the DPP and Lai, did not need to declare independence from China, for Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign state called the Republic of China.

Preserving the current status quo is one that a good proportion of the Taiwanese electorate was for, with 44.3 percent of respondents in a poll conducted late last year saying that they supported “forever maintaining the status quo”, while over a third of the respondents were for “maintaining the status quo while working toward independence”. This was in contrast with the mere 3.8 percent of respondents who supported “independence as soon as possible”, and 0.7 percent who supported “unification as soon as possible”. However, not everyone agreed with Lai’s notion that Taiwan did not need to declare independence, for it was already an independent and sovereign state. 

Ahead of the elections, in an interview with the German broadcaster DW, former president and KMT (Kuomintang) party chairman from 2008 to 2016 Ma Ying-jeou said: “Lai claims that there is ‘no need to declare independence because they are already a sovereign and independent country.’ Do you think Lai is lying?”. “Well, his name is Lai (lie),” he added. In the same interview, he said that there was a need for Taiwan to trust Chinese president Xi Jinping on cross-straits issues, that the Taiwanese populace might be interested in a peaceful unification, and that it was hopeless for Taiwan to try and defend itself against the larger and stronger mainland. 

His comments, which came just a few days before the election, were seen as undermining the KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih’s efforts to dispel the notion that the KMT was a pro-Beijing party that would “sell out” the island to China. Despite being a regular fixture at KMT’s rallies in the lead-up to the election, Ma was not invited to the party’s final rally, as Hou was said to be distancing himself from Ma after his controversial remarks in the DW interview. 

Hou, however, also disagrees, at least publicly, with the DPP’s views towards China and their position on Taiwan’s status. On China, Hou said that the DPP was putting the country on the warpath by antagonising Beijing, and instead pledged to restore ties with China even as he wanted to ramp up defence spending. On Taiwan, Hou and the KMT oppose independence for Taiwan and instead, as Chen Fang-yu, a political science professor at Soochow University told France24, ultimately accept the ‘One China Principle’ – even though they avoid stating whether the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) or the People’s Republic of China is the real China. 

Taiwan’s history of pursuing independence was first enshrined in DPP’s “Independence Clause” in 1991 by the party’s founding members, who were seeking to displace KMT’s then autocratic regime while pursuing de jure independence. Till date, the Independence Clause has not been abolished, but superseded by DPP’s 1999 “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future”, which instead prioritised cooperation across both sides of the Taiwan strait. Now, it seems like there is a general aversion from the electorate and parties alike in pushing for a legislative referendum on formal Taiwanese independence. 

However, they have since achieved new frontiers both economically and diplomatically. Even without an international mandate to sign FTAs, Taiwan’s trade and investment record with the United States, members of the EU, Japan and even Singapore are robust. Likewise, even without formal recognition in platforms like the UN, Taiwan still participates in APEC, WHA, and the Olympics in its own capacity by evading the sensitive problem of naming. Hence, Taiwan has secured for itself an important role on the global stage, even as Taiwan’s external and de jure sovereignty remains disputed. And disputed, it is.

Of the 193 member states in the UN, only 13 countries and the Vatican City formally acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign state. Therefore, while our common understanding of independence is grounded in principles of internal and external, or de facto and de jure sovereignty, Taiwan is defining its own concept of “status quo” and independence against all odds, even as pressure from China, and Taiwan’s foreign partners mounts. 

While it appears that the US is unequivocally supportive of Taiwan’s democracy, the Biden administration still pivots towards strategic ambiguity in the context of Taiwanese independence. Immediately after the 2024 election results were released, Biden responded with a statement that expressed the US’ lack of support for Taiwan’s independence, reaffirming their unofficial relationship with Taiwan under the “One China Policy”. Similarly, after President Marcos of Philippines congratulated Lai on his victory, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs endorsed the “One China Policy”, though the President’s congratulatory message still elicited backlash from the Chinese government, possibly due to the tense three-party relationship China, Taiwan and the Philippines share over the South China Sea. Hitting closer to home, Singapore echoed the same stance.

The general, implicit understanding underscoring the denial of Taiwanese independence and continued support for the “One China Policy” is that most countries see greater vested interests in maintaining cordiality with the PRC, than extending support for Taiwan’s internal and external sovereignty. However, the notion that countries are merely paying lip service to the “One China policy” to protect their relationship with Taiwan while not alienating China is perhaps too simplistic. Rather, this position is one that gives countries more room to react and manoeuvre accordingly, in a region that is more volatile than ever. But even then, the “One-China” principle, in and of itself, is a roadblock for Taiwanese independence, which therefore necessarily hinders Taiwan’s legislative pursuit of independence.

Even as they support the “One-China policy”, countries have not been entirely passive or Pro-China. The US has repeatedly stated that they are against foreign interference in Taiwan’s elections, in line with the Biden administration’s commitment to safeguarding democracy, both at home and abroad. When justifying her highly controversial visit to Taiwan in 2022 as the Russia-Ukraine war raged in the backgrounds, former US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi declared that this move was “essential (so) that America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats”. 

Much has also been done to help Taiwan pursue greater global rights without needing formal recognition. Though there are political hurdles in the way of Taiwan’s participation in WTO, there is a Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, under which Taiwan fosters economic cooperation with other countries under the name Chinese Taipei. More notably, as military expenditure became a focal point during the 2024 Taiwanese elections with calls to increase military budget, the US’ Taiwan Relations Act grants Taiwan access to military arms and a right to self-defence. Amidst the backdrop of escalating military pressure in the Taiwan strait, Taiwan as a non-state entity has continued to receive the backing of countries like the US, France, and Netherlands despite its non-independent status. As the military becomes vital for Taiwan during a period of heightened conflict, international military aid is one of the greatest forms of global recognition that Taiwan can receive. 

On the other end of the spectrum, it is important to break down China and the opposing party’s stances towards independence to glean a more complete picture of Taiwanese independence. During the 2024 elections, China made very personalised attacks against Lai throughout his campaign, labelling him a “separatist” and a severe danger to peace by “following the evil path” of independence, suggesting any form of Taiwanese sovereignty in “status quo” as direct confrontation to China’s reunification policy.

Since China laid claim to Taiwan after the Civil War in 1949, China persisted on the path to reunification with Taiwan, though the possibility of “peaceful reunification” has been under duress in recent years as Taiwan’s internal and de facto sovereignty has grown from strength to strength, and as global recognition increases. In the eyes of China, Taiwanese independence is an immediate stumbling block in maintaining peace within the region. While the elections are over, the process of conceptualising and mediating between different conceptions of “independence”, and then enacting policies that reflect these ideas, is far from over. But with the stakes this high, one hopes Lai succeeds. 

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