A war of words erupted on Sunday, a day after Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections, with Taiwan accusing China of making “fallacious comments” and China criticising the US for congratulating the winner.
The verbal sparring highlighted the seemingly intractable divide over Taiwan’s fate, a major flashpoint in US-China relations that risks leading to an actual war in the future.
The victory of Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, in Saturday’s election was a setback for China’s efforts to bring Taiwan under its control.
His Democratic Progressive Party advocates maintaining the status quo, in which Taiwan governs itself but refrains from declaring formal independence — a move that could trigger a Chinese military response.
China, meanwhile, is calling for what it terms a “peaceful reunification”, but that seems increasingly unrealistic as most Taiwanese have come to oppose becoming part of China.
Taiwan has said as much, taking issue with China over its often-repeated line that Taiwan is a domestic Chinese issue.
China regards the island of 23 million people as a renegade province and says it should not have its own president or official relations with foreign governments.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on the election that “the Taiwan question is China’s internal affair” and “the basic fact that …. Taiwan is part of China will not change”.
Taiwan said that statement “is completely inconsistent with international understanding and the current cross-strait situation”.
“It goes against the expectation of global democratic communities and goes against the will of the people of Taiwan to uphold democratic values. Such cliches are not worth refuting,” it said.
The US, in a statement attributed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, congratulated Mr Lai on his victory and said it looks forward to working with all of Taiwan’s leaders “to advance our shared interests and values”.
It congratulated the people of Taiwan for demonstrating the strength of their democracy, a nod to the Biden administration’s efforts to find common ground with other democracies in the face of China’s rise.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the US statement “sends a gravely wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces” and goes against an American commitment to maintaining only unofficial ties with Taiwan.
Mr Lai’s victory means the Democratic Progressive Party will continue to hold the presidency for a third four-year term, following eight years under president Tsai Ing-wen. But he won a three-way race for president with 40% of the vote, less than the clear majority Mr Tsai won in 2020. He will take office in May.
The Democratic Progressive Party lost its majority in the legislature, finishing with one seat fewer than the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. Neither holds a majority, giving the Taiwan People’s Party – a relatively new force that won eight of the 113 seats – a possible swing vote on legislation.
A statement from the Taiwan Affairs Office in China said the results show that the Democratic Progressive Party does not represent mainstream public opinion on the island.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, in its response, called on China “to respect the election results, face reality and give up its oppression against Taiwan”.
The Chinese military regularly sends fighter jets and warships into the skies and waters near Taiwan. Any conflict could draw in the United States, which officially dos not support Taiwan’s independence but opposes any attempt to change the status quo by force.
Meanwhile, former US national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former deputy secretary of state James Steinberg arrived in Taipei on Sunday for post-election meetings with political leaders.
It was unclear how China would react, as it seeks to nurture a recent improvement in its troubled ties with the US while also maintaining a firm and unwavering position on Taiwan.
The two men will have meetings on Monday, the American Institute in Taiwan, the de-facto US Embassy, said in a news release. The institute said the US government had asked them “to travel in their private capacity to Taiwan”.
China has said it opposes any official interaction with Taiwan but has not indicated whether it considers the forthcoming visit an official one.
The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, though it maintains an office in Taipei, the capital city, and is the main supplier of weapons for the island’s military.