Taiwan’s 19.5 million eligible voters will be voting Jan. 13 in the most consequential presidential election in recent decades.
The potential outcomes are many. In a worst-case scenario, it could lead to an escalation of ongoing tensions into conflict in the Taiwan Strait, a 110-mile wide waterway separating the island of Taiwan from the Asian continent. Most analysts don’t believe an escalation is imminent or inevitable, but it could result in a global political and economic crisis. Here’s why:
Taiwan plays an outsized and strategic role in the geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China. Neither accepting nor rejecting China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, the U.S. argues any evolution of cross-strait relations must be peaceful and supported by the people on both sides.
The U.S. is committed to ensuring Taiwan has sufficient self-defense capacity to push back against military coercion, but it has not given Taiwan formal security guarantees. China pledges to prioritize peaceful means to achieve its goals but does not rule out military force.
This ambiguity has ensured peace so far, yet the approach is coming under strain as distrust between the U.S. and China grows.
Meanwhile, China has been increasing military drills around the Taiwan Strait – crossing the sensitive median line that serves as the unofficial border separating the two sides. The U.S. has reported more incidents of dangerous maneuvers and harassment of its military planes by Chinese fighter jets over Taiwan Strait, which can accidentally lead to a direct military conflict between the two superpowers.
Despite this, the U.S. and China downplay the risk of conflict as long as all sides respect each other’s “red lines.” For Beijing, that means any explicit challenge to its goal of achieving control of Taiwan. For Washington, it’s any effort to force a solution onto the people of Taiwan.
The fallout of a conflict would lead to rapid and significant western sanctions against and decoupling from the Chinese economy. Recent high-level engagement shows both the U.S. and China are trying to contain their differences and avoid misunderstandings and escalation.