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What Are the Implications of the DPP's Defeat?
The DPP's defeat was a rebuke to President Tsai and her attempt to make the midterms a referendum on China.
By demonstrating seriousness of purpose, Taiwan can refute one canard still alive in Washington: that Taiwan’s citizens are insufficiently committed to their own defense. Geostrategist Edward Luttwak recently wrote in these pages of “the persistent fecklessness” of Taipei’s military preparedness, while its “youth can continue to play video games.” Such criticism is unjustified and corrosive, as Taiwan can’t open itself to criticism that it is free-riding on U.S. political and military aid.
Bolton says that this is a "canard," but the record of Taiwanese military spending speaks for itself. Not only has the Taiwanese government spent relatively little of its own wealth on its defense, but it has also spent it on too many of the wrong big-ticket items that are costly but easily destroyed and not so easily replaced. Bolton says that Taiwan "can't open itself to criticism that it is free-riding," but of course that is what their government has been doing for decades.
What worries Bolton so much is that there might not be as much tolerance for such free-riding as there used to be. That is why he repeatedly warns about phantom "isolationists" that he thinks might cause problems for the hawkish agenda he is pushing. He needn't worry so much, since the only competition in Washington over Taiwan seems to be how to outdo the other side in expressing unflinching support. Of course, this reflexive support reinforces the very free-riding in question that Bolton is working overtime to deny.
The Taiwanese local elections turned primarily on local issues, as one would expect, but the DPP's defeat was nonetheless a rebuke to President Tsai and her attempt to make the midterms a referendum on China. It is natural that the party that has been in power for six years would face a midterm backlash, and that accounts for much of the drubbing that the DPP received. This was an election decided in large part by anti-incumbency sentiment and poor turnout from the ruling party's supporters.
It is not impossible for the party to recover and win the next presidential election, but it seems likely to make it more challenging as they try to extend their control of the presidency to a third consecutive term. Bolton tries to spin the result as having little beating on the presidential election in 2024, but the fact is that this was a significant setback for the ruling party and it was their worst performance in local elections since 1986. One doubts that Bolton would be preaching the virtues of transcending partisanship if the results had gone the other way.
The emerging view among many analysts after the elections is that increased support for the Kuomintang might ease tensions with Beijing and reduce the likelihood of conflict in the near term. Depending on who succeeds Tsai as the DPP's standard-bearer, the next election could present Taiwanese voters with a starker choice than they have had before. The Financial Times reports:
Batto said the DPP’s defeat and Tsai’s resignation from the party leadership was likely to reduce the president’s control over the candidate race, allowing vice-president William Lai from the party’s more hardline pro-independence wing to slide into the nomination unopposed.
If that were to happen, any easing of tensions with China would likely be a brief lull, and a victory by the DPP led by Lai could trigger a new series of punitive measures from Beijing. The U.S. may soon have to be much more blunt in its messages to Taipei that our government will not support a bid for independence.