On Saturday, January 11th, Taiwan will hold its general election as President Tsai Ing-Wen attempts to retain the presidency as her main rival—Han Kuo-Yu—seeks to unseat her. Given their differing stances with respect to mainland China, this election’s outcome could have long-term implications for international relations in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States will be keeping a close eye on the election outcome, but the American public does not accord the same importance to Taiwan as does the government.
To be sure, the main candidates have very different views on future relations with China. President Tsai supports the status quo position which asserts Taiwan’s independence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and, most notably, rejects the ‘1992 Consensus’ which groups Taiwan and the PRC together as ‘one China.’ By contrast, Han Kuo-yu—the populist mayor of Taiwan’s third largest city and the representative of the Kuomintang party—has struck a more conciliatory tone. He supports the ‘1992 Consensus’ and aims to restart formal talks with the PRC while still resisting the ‘one country, two systems’ plan that currently defines Hong Kong’s status.
The 2019 Chicago Council Survey of American public opinion found that Americans are tepid on key elements of the US-Taiwan relationship. One such element is the sale of US weapons to Taiwan. The May 2019 Taiwan Assurance Act aims to expand the US-Taiwan relationship, enhance Taiwan’s defense capabilities, and sell weapons to Taiwan. Asked about whether they would support or oppose selling arms to Taiwan, only 34 percent of Americans support such sales. While majorities of each political party oppose, Republicans are more likely to support arms sales by a margin of about 10 percentage points.
The United States has long pledged to defend Taiwan if China attacked, but the responses again show a minority of Americans are in favor of using US troops. However, the 2019 results also show the highest proportion of Americans across all political parties favoring the use of US troops since this question was first asked in 1982. It is unclear, however, what it causing this shift in public support for defense of Taiwan given the increasing prowess of China’s military capabilities.
In 2020, Taiwan finds itself in a unique geopolitical situation. Its few allies are being tempted to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China, and Xi Jinping appears determined to reunite Taiwan with mainland China. Should Han Kuo-Yu win the election, his more Beijing-friendly perspective could reposition Taiwan closer to China and reconfigure the United States’ calculus in the region. If the United States took definitive action to prevent Chinese reunification it is unclear how the public would respond. However, should public support for the defense of Taiwan continue to rise, future administrations may find more latitude in their policy towards Taiwan.