Vote for the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate in the presidential election in January and you will have peace, dialogue and cross-strait exchanges. Vote for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate and you may have war. That was apparently the blunt message sent by Beijing to the voters of Taiwan by three days of sweeping military exercises around the island this month and its warm reception to a visit by former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou.
On April 12, the DPP chose Vice-President William Lai Ching-te as its candidate for the election, to succeed Tsai Ing-wen, who has held the post since 2016. The KMT has not chosen its candidate. Front-runner is Hou Yu-ih, Mayor of New Taipei City and a former Director-General of the National Police Agency.
On April 5, Terry Gou, billionaire founder of Foxconn, said that he would seek the KMT nomination, for a second time. "The only way to avoid war with China is to reduce Sino-U.S. tensions and get the DPP out of office. We can't let the DPP continue to govern, we can't let our children live in a forest of guns and the hail of bullets," he said.
This was also the message loudly sent by the People's Liberation Army over three days of exercises in early-April when its navy conducted 120 flight sorties from an aircraft carrier in waters around Taiwan.
The Taiwan Defence Ministry said it detected 91 PLA military aircraft and 12 warships operating, 54 of the planes had crossed the unofficial Taiwan Strait median line and entered Taiwan's air defence identification zone. The PLA said it was practising a "joint blockade" of Taiwan. The scale of the operations was second only to exercises the PLA conducted last August.
Beijing's message was supported by Ma Ying-jeou, who became the first sitting or former Taiwan president to visit the mainland, at the end of March. At a memorial hall in Nanjing, Ma said all people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait were Chinese — a position the majority of Taiwanese do not share, according to long-running polls. Ma said it was the responsibility of Chinese people on both sides to "work together to pursue peace, avoid war and strive to revitalise China".
On April 12, speaking after his nomination, Lai said: "Former President Ma walked back into the framework of the ‘One China' principle, whereas President Tsai is on the democratic path. These will be the two completely different choices the country will face after 2024, so the 2024 election will decide Taiwan's direction - on the continuation of a democratic system, the next generation's happiness, as well as peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."
The problem for Beijing and the KMT is that, since Xi Jinping took power, support for reunification with China has been falling. In the most recent poll conducted by National Chengchi University last July, only 1.3 per cent of respondents said they wanted reunification "as soon as possible", while just 5.1 per cent wanted formal Taiwan independence at the earliest possibility.
The dislike of the mainland has grown with the constant bellicose language of Beijing's leaders and the increasingly aggressive actions of the PLA army, navy and air force. Events in Hong Kong since 2019, the ending of political opposition and the introduction of the National Security Law have ended any trust in the "one country, two systems" formula -- the only political option offered by Beijing.
According to the poll, a record 28.6 per cent said they preferred to "maintain the status quo indefinitely," and 28.3 per cent chose the status quo to "decide at a later date." Meanwhile, 25.2 per cent of respondents opted for the status quo with a view to "move toward independence."
Both the DPP and KMT promise to maintain the status quo. So what is the need for the costly and frightening military exercises?
The Ukraine war hangs like a dark cloud over Taiwan. Largely cut off from the world and not using internet, Vladimir Putin was told by close advisers the Ukrainian public would support an invasion by Russia and that Moscow had high-level government supporters who, through money or conviction, would facilitate it. Events have proved that he was completely misinformed; tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have died as a result.
People in Taiwan worry about the same scenario in Beijing. Do the advisers of President Xi tell him the latest opinion polls on what Taiwan people want? Do they give him complete information? Are there people within the Taiwan government and military who would assist in a Chinese takeover?
"If the mainland used force to attack Taiwan, leaving a sea of blood and a profound hatred, the wounds would be hard to heal even after hundreds of years," Taiwan political commentator Chao Shao-kang said.