Assessing the 2024 Taiwan Election

By Helena Hussey MIA ’24
Posted Jan 25 2024
Rapid Response Panel


On January 19, SIPA’s Institute of Global Politics convened a pair of experts on China and East Asia to assess the outcome of Taiwan’s recent election. 

The 45-minute conversation featured the Columbia professors Thomas J. Christensen and Andrew Nathan, who discussed the victory by Lai Ching-te, presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and analyzed its potential impact on the region and broader geopolitical landscape. 

We’ve highlighted a few of their responses; the full program is embedded below.

Participating Experts:

Thomas J. Christensen* - James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations, IGP Affiliated Faculty Member, and Professor of Public and International Affairs, Columbia SIPA; Director of the China and the World Program, Columbia University.

Andrew J. Nathan - Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University.

*Professor Christensen mentioned repeatedly that all opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US government.

On the candidates and their shares of the votes:

“in this election, the incumbent party, called the Democratic Progressive Party, or the DPP, that had held the presidency and had held the majority in the legislature, won the presidency with 40 percent of the vote. The person who won it is a person named Lai Ching-te or William Lai…. I want to point out that his VP candidate, Bi-kim Hsiao, is a Columbia MA graduate in political science and she was my advisee. So I'm very happy about that without being too partisan about Taiwanese elections.”

“There were two other parties running in the presidency. One was the longtime ruling party which has been the opposition for a while, called the Kuomingtang, or the nationalist party. And their candidate, a person named Hou Yu-ih, got 33.5 percent of the vote. And then there was a new party that sprung up, the Taiwan People's Party, the TPP… who had a candidate named Ko Wen-je, and they got 26.5 percent. So actually, the winning slate of Lai Ching-te and Bi-kim Hsiao got less than a majority, which is kind of characteristic when the DPP has won elections. They often win them with less than a majority and the opposition, a number of times, has split the majority vote that doesn't go to the winning party.”

— Andrew Nathan

On cross-strait stability:

The fact that the DPP won 40 percent of the vote and not a majority, and that the [other] two parties, the KMT and the DPP together, had a majority provided the CCP on the mainland a chance to have a kind of fig leaf of some term of success in the election. They've been able to say the pro-independence candidate didn't get a majority. There's still room for peaceful unification in the future from their perspective and the situation isn't so dire…. It provides [China] an opportunity to spin things in the direction of success, which might be annoying to some. But it's actually a force for stability if it leads to patience on the mainland about how to manage cross-strait relations. Because it means that the dangerous and risky option of using force doesn't need to be on the table in the near term.”

— Thomas Christensen

On economic and diplomatic pressure from China:

“I think that this series of elections have disabused Beijing of the idea that the Taiwanese people would voluntarily unify out of a positive desire to be part of the Chinese nation. But I don't think [Xi Jinping] has given up the hope of nonetheless winning this unification struggle without a war because he has a lot of instruments to bring tremendous pressure on Taiwan, perhaps number one, economic. So Taiwan's economy depends a great deal on trade and investment with the mainland, and China has already said we're going to get rid of some trade privileges that we have been giving you. But on the other hand, we're opening up the mainland economy. This is not new, but we're continuing to open up and make the mainland economy even more comfortable for those of you who want to come over here invest and be moving the ball forward toward closer ties.” 

“Right after the election, Beijing consummated a switch of diplomatic relations from the small island nation of Nauru from Taiwan. So China can peel away some more, maybe not every one, but probably most of those countries which would be damaging to Taiwan's diplomatic posture.”

— Andrew Nathan

On Lai's moderate stance and the position of the United States:

“What we saw with Lai Ching-te's campaign is that he maintained a relatively moderate stance consistent with the stance of the current President Tsai. And his acceptance speech said something very important, which was also assuring and that he would manage cross-strait relations in a way consistent with the constitution of the Republic of China. And that is a very important statement because the constitution of the Republic of China is not a pro-independence document, it's a one-China document. And it's difficult and it's a little bit painful for DPP politicians to say that, but they know that they're saying it because it's around that you can build a consensus in Taiwan about moderation and maintaining cross-strait stability that is widely welcomed.

“It's also welcomed in the United States because, again, the United States wants to see peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. But the United States is not in the business and hasn't been in the business of supporting Taiwan independence, of treating Taiwan as a sovereign independent nation. It has opposed unilateral changes to the status quo. And really said the two sides of the Straits should work things out peacefully, and however they work it out, we can live with it. But you have to work it out on your own.”

— Thomas Christensen

Watch the entire discussion below: