Beijing’s Post-Election Plan for Taiwan and Lai

Beijing’s Post-Election Plan for Taiwan and Lai
Beijing’s Post-Election Plan for Taiwan and Lai

At first blush, the results of Taiwan’s national elections last month read like a clear rebuke of China’s coercive reunification agenda. Despite Beijing’s incessant branding of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as “separatist,” Taiwanese voters extended the DPP’s presidential reign for an unprecedented third consecutive term. International headlines hailed the election as a major “setback” for China, which had warned that casting a ballot for the DPP was tantamount to voting for war with the mainland. Some media even framed the DPP’s victory as an act of defiance by the Taiwanese people, rebuffing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s assertion in his recent New Year’s address that reunification between China and Taiwan is “inevitable.”

But the political fallout following Taiwan’s election is more nuanced. Dig deeper, and Taiwan’s fractured electoral outcome foreshadows political divisions that China will exploit. It also suggests that Beijing’s pre-election meddling may have actually succeeded in advancing Xi’s dual-pronged strategy of undermining popular support for the DPP and sowing societal discord to reduce resistance to China’s reunification calls.

For starters, while the DPP’s presidential candidate, William Lai, won decisively, his victory did not translate into an overwhelming mandate because he secured only 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race. The two opposition candidates, representing the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), garnered the remaining 60 percent of ballots. Minor differences aside, both opposition parties set themselves apart from the DPP by pledging to stabilize cross-strait relations through dialogue with the mainland, a prospect China dismissed as impossible under a DPP-led administration.

Beijing undoubtedly took note of these distinctions. Before the election, Chinese-owned social media platforms popular in Taiwan, like TikTok, amplified content that portrayed the opposition candidates and their parties positively, according to analyzes conducted by Mandiant, Numbers Protocol, Doublethink Lab, and other cyberthreat firms. These platforms simultaneously unleashed a deluge of disinformation denigrating Lai and the DPP, including false claims the DPP collaborated with Washington to build bioweapons—an echo of Moscow’s propaganda claims against Ukraine. In other instances, Chinese bot farms established internet profiles impersonating genuine Taiwanese news websites and began propagating seemingly legitimate broadcast clips aligning with China’s preferred political narratives about reunification.

Evaluating disinformation’s impact on elections is extremely difficult—not just in Taiwan. But the Chinese campaigns almost certainly fostered skepticism towards Lai and his agenda. Lai still won, but his share of the vote fell far behind that of outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, under whom Lai served as vice president. With all of the votes now counted, Lai’s result was 17 points lower than Tsai’s victory in 2020 and 16 points lower than her victory in 2016, when she vanquished KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu and third-party challenger James Soong.

More importantly for Beijing than Lai’s weak mandate, his presidential victory did not translate into DPP success in the parliamentary election held on the same day. The DPP lost its legislative majority, shedding 10 seats, while the KMT and TPP gained 14 and three seats, respectively. Now, the KMT controls Taiwan’s parliament, with Han—humiliatingly defeated by Tsai eight years ago—tapped to serve as speaker. This new reality augurs bitter infighting over Lai’s political agenda, not least defense priorities and other policies to deter Chinese aggression. This is an outcome Beijing likely welcomes.

Practically speaking, this could spell trouble for Lai’s plans to sustain several Tsai-era initiatives, including Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program and plans to extend military conscription from four months to one year—a move the KMT campaigned against. Opposition legislators, nervous about provoking Beijing, could also employ obstructionist tactics to complicate Lai’s other stated goal of strengthening defense, diplomatic, and trade ties with Washington. Amid the discord over security policy, Taiwan’s ability to present a unified defense against external threats could weaken, leaving it vulnerable to Beijing’s coercion and ill-prepared to repel a potential invasion, blockade, or other hostile act.

China’s public response to the election, while swift, hardly denoted a nation sulking over the defeat it was supposedly handed by Taiwanese voters. If anything, Beijing’s bombast bordered on triumphant. Seizing on the fragmented outcome, China dismissed Lai and the DPP as out of touch with “mainstream public opinion in Taiwan.” Beijing also insisted that the result did not alter the fundamental nature or trajectory of cross-Strait relations, suggesting Beijing views the opposition’s gains as validating its view that Taiwan’s population remains receptive to a reunification dialogue. Tellingly, China has not ordered new military drills encircling Taiwan since the election, likely because its months-long marathon of maneuvers already achieved their intended purpose of undermining popular support for the DPP.

Xi’s response, above all others, loomed largest. Two days after Lai’s victory, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) news magazine and official theoretical journal, Qiushi, published a speech Xi delivered to party elites about Taiwan. In it, Xi hammered home the importance of “developing and strengthening patriotic, pro-unification forces in Taiwan,” a reference to parties, politicians, and elements of the population opposed to the DPP. Xi also championed the United Front—the arm of the Chinese Communist Party responsible for international political warfare and disinformation operations—in aggressively countering “separatist acts of Taiwanese independence.” In Beijing’s eyes, separatism can be anything Taiwan does to maintain international relations and evade Beijing’s coercive tactics—it does not have to be a formal declaration of independence, which Lai has repeatedly ruled out.

On their own, Xi’s remarks hardly broke new ground. What is significant is that Xi actually delivered the speech not in response to the election but 18 months ago—more precisely, one week before then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan to meet Tsai, a trip that ignited China’s drive to stoke invasion fears and delegitimize the DPP.

In other words, these were not Xi’s post-election musings. They were his pre-election marching orders to the CCP’s ideological foot soldiers and cyberwarriors. While Beijing may have fallen short in securing the DPP’s outright defeat, the strategically timed release of Xi’s speech appears aimed at validating his approach—one that blends disinformation, economic coercion, and threatening military drills—to advance China’s reunification agenda. The speech’s declassification also underscores Xi’s intention to sustain what he likely views as a winning political warfare strategy, with the goal of further undermining popular support for the DPP and galvanizing opposition unity.

Just how might this unfold?

For starters, China’s military drills to intimidate Taiwan’s population may soon resume, with Beijing stepping up patrols off the coast of Taiwan’s Kinmen archipelago. Politically, Beijing will likely move quickly behind the scenes to encourage collaboration between anti-DPP legislators, gently prompting them to support joint initiatives that undermine Lai’s agenda. Prior to local elections in 2026, China may also resume providing financial and other support to opposition candidates promoting closer cross-strait ties, as Taiwanese prosecutors found Beijing to have done ahead of last month’s election. Such meddling will almost certainly occur alongside covert Chinese efforts to identify, cultivate, and ultimately back a consensus candidate capable of challenging Lai in 2028, a herculean task predicated upon fostering KMT-TPP unity through facilitated negotiations and backroom politicking.

In tandem, Beijing will likely offer preferential treatment, including market access, to Taiwanese businesses supporting closer ties with China—in hopes of luring the business community away from the DPP. China could also offer economic incentives and investment opportunities that benefit regions or industries traditionally represented by the KMT and TPP, thereby encouraging these parties to continue supporting policies that align with Beijing’s long-term interests. Targeted measures could include increased Chinese imports of agricultural products from rural areas that have historically been KMT strongholds, as well as new manufacturing investments in KMT-controlled industrial zones.

Beyond politics and economics, Beijing will wield its considerable control over social media to champion narratives highlighting the benefits of closer cross-strait relations, albeit on Xi’s terms. China may also seek to restart once-dormant people-to-people exchanges to deepen ties between regions and groups perceived as anxious over the DPP’s agenda, which would help lay the groundwork for broader opposition support during future election cycles. Finally, China will double down on diplomatic efforts to reduce Taiwan’s international standing, as reflected in its convincing the Pacific island of Nauru to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing two days after Lai’s election victory. Beijing’s next target is likely Tuvalu, which would then leave Taiwan with only 10 partners recognizing it, rather than Beijing.

All told, Taiwan’s election result does not mark the dawn of a DPP dynasty, nor does it spell the end of China’s reunification ambitions by whatever means necessary. If anything, the DPP’s diminished standing suggests Beijing will double down on the political war it is already waging and winning, rather than start an armed one it could lose. That prospect, however, should be of little solace to Taiwan, where the battleground has shifted from missiles to mandates, and where resilience against political subversion remains the ultimate defense.

The article is in Norwegian

Tags: Beijings PostElection Plan Taiwan Lai


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