Taiwan: The ‘rebel island’, the ‘angry dragon’, and the uncertainty of tomorrow


By Olivier Guillard, a specialist in Asian issues, research associate at the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, a researcher at CERIAS (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada), Director of Information at CRISIS24 (Paris), and lecturer (geopolitics; political science) at EDHEC Business School (Lille).

How to cite this publication

Olivier Guillard, Taiwan: The 'rebel island', the 'angry dragon', and the uncertainty of tomorrow, Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, Paris, December 6, 2023.


The views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. The illustrative image, which is free of rights, was chosen by the editorial team.

The countdown to the eagerly-awaited political rendezvous has well and truly begun; in Taiwan as in mainland China (Beijing in particular) eyes and minds are riveted on the electoral calendar and more precisely on the date of January 13, 2024, when the rebel island will invite its voters to renew the National Assembly (Legislative Yuan) and designate a successor to the outgoing head of state, the resolute and inflexible Madame Tsai Ing-wen. Elected to the presidency in 2016 under the Sino-skeptic DPP [1] banner and re-elected four years later by defeating a KMT [2] challenger once again – then irritating the Chinese authorities to no end … -, President Tsai cannot seek a 3rd consecutive presidential term, not that the electorate would necessarily sanction such a project. It's just that in this island-state of 24 million people separated geographically from the People's Republic of China by the 160 km-wide Taiwan Strait – the international public opinion learns at regular intervals that this sensitive strait is increasingly 'encumbered' (without invitation and even less notice...) by the vessels of an increasingly large, imposing, defiant and bold Chinese navy -, the Constitution limits presidential office to two successive four-year terms.

With just six weeks to go before the 7th presidential election in the 21st century in ancient Formosa, and with the election campaign now in full swing and personal political destinies being played out and unraveled in understandable partisan fever, the omens seem more in favor of the incumbent camp (DPP) than that of the opposition; In fact, the latter is struggling in terms of voting intentions and to pool its forces, as the recent episode of the implosion (literally in front of the TV cameras [3]) of the frail KMT / TPP opposition alliance for a joint presidential ticket has illustrated all too well... This, to the great displeasure (if not despair [4]...) of Chinese authorities eager to support - by any means possible, more or less avowed [5] - the opposition's chances of returning to office; unless there is an improbable and spectacular turnaround in the coming month, it seems that Beijing and its KMT "allies" must already be anticipating a 3rd consecutive setback to their presidential ambitions, and mourn the loss of a more "peaceful [6]" Beijing-Taipei relationship in the short term…

Certainly, in view of the obstinacy / firmness shown more often than not by Beijing on domestic issues (Tibet, Xinjiang) or external matters (South China Sea; Sino-American relations; territorial dispute with India) deemed to have priority (core interests), we can well imagine that the Chinese authorities are not going to stand idly by and make things easy for the outgoing DPP camp and its likely future head of state (Mr. William Lai):

1. for example, by showering the Chinese state press and Taiwan Affairs Office [7] press releases daily with unflattering comments about the outgoing team and its record, and even thinly veiled threats to the DPP electorate and undecided voters; on Monday November 27, the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated its attacks on Mr. Lai and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim (until then Taiwan's de facto ambassador to the United States), claiming that they were "distorting the facts and minimizing the harmfulness and danger of separatist activities related to Taiwanese independence to mislead voters in the 2024 election". Three days earlier (Nov. 24), the Taiwan Affairs Office said it hoped the election result would help maintain peace and stability (between the two Chinas), barely subliminally implying that Taiwanese voters had to choose "between war and peace"...

2. The Taiwanese authorities and the armed forces have been subjected to an almost daily barrage of incursions by Chinese fighter jets and bombers into the island's airspace (ADIZ), as well as drills by Chinese naval warships in the vicinity of Taiwan. On Thursday, Nov. 30, the Ministry of National Defense said it had detected 23 Chinese military aircraft near the island while five People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels were tracked around Taiwan between 6 a.m. Wednesday (Nov. 29) and 6 a.m. Thursday (Nov. 30) [8]. Since November 1, Taipei has deplored the incursion of some 350 Chinese military aircraft and 170 warships in the vicinity of the island.

3. Or by promising the future presidential administration - all the more so if it is still flying the DPP flag in 2024 - an uncomfortable start to its term of office, for example by organizing major military drills in an increasingly realistic if not aggressive format around Taiwan, following the example of various recent precedents. In the summer of 2022, during the visit to Taipei of Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House of Representatives (USA); or again the following summer, firstly in July, when NATO was holding a summit in Vilnius at which some member countries described China as an "opposition force" with "coercive ambitions and policies"; also the following month (August 20), when Taiwanese Vice-President W. Lai (now the DPP's candidate in the January presidential elections) passed through New York and San Francisco on a visit to Paraguay, arousing Beijing's customary ire.

The painful echoes emanating for almost two years from the Ukraine, invaded by Russian troops, are ringing in the ears of the Taiwanese population, whose Sino-skeptic fringe is quick to draw an analogy with its own fate, hanging on the threat of potential military intervention by the neighboring People's Liberation Army, which in this case would be aptly misnamed... The heroic resistance of the Ukrainian forces and the resilience of a population bent on national sovereignty, democratic aspirations, and the rejection of authoritarianism, are shaping a particular state of mind in this sensitive electoral period on the rebel island, a state of mind conducive to resistance and firmly rooted ideas.

This is all the more true as, on the other side of the Atlantic, the relevance of the notion of strategic ambiguity [9] that has "officially" prevailed in recent decades with regard to Taiwan fluctuates according to the White House occupant's interventions on the issue: in the autumn of 2022, President Joe Biden promised during an interview on CBS that American troops would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion [10]; one year later - and at the risk of causing a stir in Beijing... - the US President persists: at the recent APEC summit in San Francisco (Nov. 14-16), in a meeting with Chinese head of state Xi Jinping, he reaffirmed to his interlocutor the American policy of not supporting Taiwanese independence, but declared that the United States of America would continue to help Taiwan strengthen its military self-defense capabilities...

Words that probably didn't go down too well with the ambitious and inscrutable Chinese president.

[1] Democratic Progressive Party; political agenda and DNA highly skeptical of Beijing and its desire for reunification; supporter of Taiwanese nationalism.

[2] Kuomintang; party founded in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen; main opposition political party; openly China-compatible.

[3] ''Taiwan Opposition Cracks Apart, and Invites the Cameras In'', The News York Times, November 23, 2023.

[4] In a poll carried out before the implosion (Nov. 23) of the short-lived KMT - TPP alliance, Ko Wen-je, the TPP candidate, led the poll (31.9%), nearly 3 points ahead of DPP candidate W. Lai Ching-te (29.2%), with KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih in 3rd place (23.6%).

[5] ''Can Taiwan Continue to Fight Off Chinese Disinformation?'', The News York Times, November 25, 2023.

[6] As was the case during the two consecutive terms of President Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) between 2008 and 2016.

[7] A Chinese government entity in charge of implementing Taiwan-related directives and policies defined by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

[8] ''China dispatches 11 military aircraft to Taiwan ADIZ Thursday morning'', Taiwan News, November 30, 2023.

[9] For Washington, this mainly means diplomatically recognizing only the People's Republic of China, while undertaking to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself in the event of a Chinese military invasion... but without explicitly guaranteeing automatic intervention by US forces.

[10] Le Monde, September 19, 2022.