The Biden administration has redoubled its support for Taiwan’s democratic process ahead of a presidential election on the island that will serve as a bellwether of mainland China’s creeping influence in Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.
Senior Chinese Liaison to Taiwan warned recently that Saturday’s election would be a choice between “peace and war”. Beijing has also warned Washington not to get involved.
The election results will have ripple effects on geopolitics and global trade. Depending on the outcome, they could also trigger an increase in Chinese military activity in and around the island.
The White House is preparing for many different outcomes.
“Anytime we go into a period of heightened tension, there are of course always discussions of emergency in the U.S. government,” a senior administration official said late Wednesday in a briefing with reporters.
“I don’t want to go into specifics about those, but of course, we have to be prepared and think about every eventuality … ranging from no response to the highest level,” the official said.
The White House insists the United States is not supporting any of the top three candidates. However, that doesn’t mean Washington is completely on the sidelines.
An “informal delegation” of Americans will travel to Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, immediately after the election to boost its “face-to-face” engagement with the island, a senior government official said. “It is no secret that Beijing has an opinion on the outcome of the election and is trying to shape its course in various ways.”
Lai Ching-te, the candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, is seen as likely to maintain the status quo in relations with China and the US, making him Beijing’s least favorite choice.
Opposition candidate Hou Yu-ih has expressed openness to closer ties with mainland China.
A third candidate, retired surgeon Ko Wen-je, is a former mayor of Taipei who has positioned himself as a pragmatist and moderate.
The polls show the contest is close, but Lai is the favorite.
Taiwan has reported myriad attempts by the Chinese government to influence the election through disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks and financial coercion.
The cautiously provocative message from Washington on Taiwan follows two days of meetings between January 8 and 9 between the Pentagon and Ministry of Defense of China.
Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer also met with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday to stress, among other things, the US commitment to “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
These meetings build on President Joe Biden’s November one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco, which was aimed at ending the bitter freeze that has characterized recent US-China relations.
At the November summit, Xi has stated directly that he intends to reunify Taiwan with mainland China and will not rule out military force to do so.
In meetings earlier this week, China demanded that the United States “stop arming Taiwan and oppose Taiwan’s ‘independence’.”
The US regularly sends millions of dollars in defense aid to Taiwan, including a $300 million package in December that prompted China’s sanctions against American companies.
“Taiwan is a key part of global supply chains,” the White House official said. “A disruption of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait would seriously damage the global economy.”
China has maintained military pressure on the island with hovering satellites, military aircraft, ships and balloons. China also revoked tax concessions on some imports to Taiwan, claiming the island had violated parts of its trade agreements, and extended an investigation into those violations until Jan. 12, just a day before Taiwan’s election.
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