China-Taiwan Weekly Update, December 15, 2023

China-Taiwan Weekly Update, December 15, 2023 

Authors: Nils Peterson, Matthew Sperzel, Daniel Shats, Ian Jones, Frank Hoffman, and Kyle Lim of the Institute for the Study of War 

Editors: Dan Blumenthal and Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute 

Data Cutoff: December 12 at 5pm ET 

The China–Taiwan Weekly Update focuses on the Chinese Communist Party’s paths to controlling Taiwan and relevant cross–Taiwan Strait developments. 

Key Takeaways  

  1. DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te made significant gains in the polls while support for KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih plateaued.
  2. Chinese Coast Guard and Maritime Militia vessels took aggressive actions against Philippine government vessels near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on December 9 and 10.
  3. A loss of Compacts of Free Association funding for Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands would enable the CCP to expand its leverage points over these countries.
  4. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized the need for an immediate ceasefire to the Israel-Hamas War during separate conversations with American and Iranian officials. Wang’s comments are consistent with the PRC’s efforts to use the Israel-Hamas War to bolster its image as a fair, responsible broker in contrast to the “biased” United States.



DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te made significant gains in the polls while support for KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih plateaued. A December 10 Taiwan News Poll of Polls showed that in a weighted average of polls from the past ten days, Lai had 38.06% support, Hou had 31.27%, and Taiwan People’s Party candidate Ko Wen-je had 18.48%. These numbers show a nearly 5 percentage point jump from 33.2% for Lai since the December 5 Poll of Polls, a 2% rise from 29.3% for Hou since then, and a 3.5% drop from 22.0% for Ko. This is the first time Lai has surpassed 35% support since the Poll of Polls’ first data point on September 1. It is also Ko’s worst performance in the Poll of Polls since October 16.[1] The Poll of Polls normally aggregates polls from the previous 15 days.

Hou and his running mate Jaw Shaw-kong continued their strategy of appealing to the KMT base to grow their support. Hou, Jaw, and other KMT officials called on former independent candidate Terry Gou to return to the KMT to strengthen their pan-Blue support.[2] Gou has not answered their calls, however. Gou was a KMT member who left the party after losing the nomination to Hou and then ran as an independent until November 24. Hou and Jaw also nominated former KMT legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng as chairman of their campaign’s National Support Association. The KMT-aligned media outlet United Daily News reported that Wang might use this position to help the KMT win back Gou’s support.[3] Wang held a banquet for Terry Gou supporters on December 12.[4]

Formosa E-News polling collected from December 4 to December 11 showed that support for the Hou-Jaw ticket among self-identified KMT voters consistently remained between 90% and 95%.[5] It first rose above 90% in the last week of November after the candidates’ registration and the collapse of the Hou-Ko joint ticket negotiations.[6] The KMT’s base consolidation strategy has kept KMT-aligned support for Hou strong but may be hitting diminishing returns, however. This would explain why Hou’s rise in the polls has slowed. Lai’s support among self-identified DPP voters was also above 90% in the same polls since candidate registration.[7] Formosa is a politically centrist news website and polling organization that is widely cited in Taiwanese media due to the frequency, detail, and perceived reliability of its polling.

TPP candidate Ko Wen-je has pivoted his messaging to appeal to pan-Green (DPP-aligned) voters. Ko declared himself “deep-Green at heart” in a December 7 interview and said that he would largely continue incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign and defense policy.[8] This is a major shift in messaging from Ko. He previously attempted to align with the KMT in a joint presidential ticket. The shift may be related to polling that shows support for Ko among KMT-identifying voters has declined to 2-4% from 9.4% on November 24.[9] Although Ko has consistently presented himself as a pragmatic middle option between the DPP and KMT, the bulk of his voting base consists of voters below 40. These younger voters are primarily contested with the DPP.[10] A December 8 article in KMT-aligned China Times said youth turnout was key to winning the election. Ko remains the most popular candidate among this age group.[11]

The dominant message in the Taiwan election remains focused on cross-strait relations, which favors the DPP. The DPP continued to promote its message that the election is about maintaining Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty. DPP vice presidential candidate Hsiao Bi-khim said on December 12 that the PRC wants to “turn Taiwan into Hong Kong.”[12] This is a line of argument previously used by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and other DPP politicians. Tsai won the 2020 presidential election in a landslide and was boosted by the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which the CCP brutally repressed.[13] Hong Kong’s loss of governing autonomy under the PRC’s “one country, two systems” framework bolstered the DPP argument for resisting Chinese influence, because “one country, two systems” is also the framework intended for Taiwan if the PRC successfully “reunifies” it. Hsiao made the comments days after Hong Kong held a “patriots only” district council election that saw a record-low turnout of 27.5% and the detention of pro-democracy activists.[14]

The dominant framing of cross-strait relations has changed since November, however. Formosa polling collected November 27-28 showed that the DPP’s framing that the election is about “democracy vs autocracy” has overtaken the KMT (and CCP) “peace vs war” narrative to become the plurality viewpoint among the ROC electorate. 36.5% of respondents agreed that the election was a choice between “democracy and autocracy” compared to 29% who said it was between “war and peace.”[15] This shows the dominant narrative preferred by the CCP is not resonating with most voters in Taiwan. ISW has assessed since May 26 that “war and peace” is the dominant framing on cross-strait relations in the Taiwan election.[16] KMT leaders, such as former president Ma Ying-jeou, have been promoting this message since at least April, before the party confirmed Hou as its presidential nominee.[17]

The CCP is improving the coordination of its efforts to influence the outcome of Taiwan’s election, according to an unnamed senior Taiwanese security official. The source disclosed to Western media that the CCP convened a top-level meeting in Beijing led by Politburo member Wang Huning to coordinate efforts by various agencies to influence Taiwan’s presidential election. Wang is chairman of both the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and is thus the PRC’s top official for Taiwan affairs. The Taiwanese source claimed this meeting focused on stepping up the effectiveness of influencing Taiwan’s public opinion and reducing the detectability of CCP interference. Attending officials were allegedly told to coordinate their efforts with the Central Propaganda Department and the People’s Liberation Army Base 311, which is a unit that serves as the operational command for Taiwan-targeted “public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.”[18] The PRC has used strategies to promote pro-China candidates such as magnifying war versus peace narratives, social media disinformation, outreach programs to bring Taiwanese politicians, businesspeople, and nationals to visit China, and cultural and religious exchanges.

Radio Free Asia  reported on December 6 that a “wave of misinformation” about Democratic Progressive Party vice presidential candidate Hsiao Bi-khim has appeared on Chinese social media, including that she cannot speak Mandarin, holds US citizenship, and is “unreliable.”[19] Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council spokesperson Chan Zhih-hong also stated on December 7 that the CCP is interfering in Taiwan’s elections through the Chinese Pan-Blue Association, the Taiwan New Residents Care Association, the Chinese People's Party, and other groups by inviting village chiefs to travel to China and requesting support for specific candidates.[20]

The CCP’s efforts to reduce the detectability of its election influence efforts likely reflect a recognition that more heavy-handed methods, such as military coercion, are ineffective. Historically, the CCP’s use of overt coercion to intimidate Taiwanese voters into opposing perceived “anti-China” presidential candidates has backfired and resulted in higher support for those candidates. This effect played out in the landslide victories of Tsai Ing-wen in 2020 and Lee Teng-hui in 1996.[21] The PRC is continuing daily air and naval activities around Taiwan at numbers comparable to 2022. ISW has not detected a significant increase in these activities as the election nears.[22]

South China Sea

Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels took aggressive actions against Philippine government vessels near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) on December 9 and 10. On December 9, CCG ships deployed water cannons against Filipino Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessels delivering food and fuel to fishing boats around the Shoal. The Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) stated that CMM vessels also deployed a “long-range acoustic device” that incapacitated some of the Filipino crew.[23] The PRC wrested control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 after a month-long maritime standoff. CCG vessels once again deployed water cannons against BFAR vessels on December 10 during a Philippine resupply mission to a naval outpost on the nearby Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippines National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) accused a CCG vessel of ramming a Filipino vessel.[24] Philippines Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Romeo Brawner Jr. was among the passengers of the vessels that the CCG rammed. The NTF-WPS announced that the resupply mission was a success, despite BFAR vessels suffering significant damage from the water cannons.[25] NTF-WPS stated the PCG had prepared “contingencies” because of Brawner’s presence.[26] Brawner stated later that he was unhurt and that he did not believe that the PRC knew he was on the boat.[27]

The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) blamed the Philippines for the incidents. MFA spokesperson Mao Ning accused the Filipino resupply ship of ramming the CCG vessel and endangering the safety of Chinese crew members.[28] The PRC’s framing of the incidents is consistent with its portrayal of rival SCS claimants as aggressors while the CCG and CMM instigate confrontation. PRC Ambassador to the UN Geng Shuang on December 5 derided the Philippines’ resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal as “infringements and provocations” to achieve “permanent occupation” during an address to the General Assembly.[29] The MFA accused the US of “coercing, making threats, and unprovoked attacks” after the latter reassured the Philippines of its support in the wake of the confrontations.[30]

The latest confrontations at Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal illustrate the PRC’s increasingly brazen approach to assert control over its territorial claims in the SCS. The incident at Second Thomas Shoal is the fifth of its kind this year. The CCG deployed water cannons against Filipino vessels on August 5 for the first time in two years during a similar routine resupply mission.[31] CCG vessels used water cannons again under the same circumstances on November 10.[32] Collisions are also an increasingly common tactic to harass Filipino vessels. CMM vessels twice collided with Filipino vessels on October 22 to prevent Filipino ships from delivering construction materials.[33]

Compacts of Free Association

A loss of Compacts of Free Association (COFA) funding for Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands would enable the CCP to expand its leverage points over these countries. These COFAs govern the United States’ relationship with Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands while also granting the United States extensive military access throughout their territories. The United States renewed COFAs with Palau and Micronesia in May.[34] It then did so with the Marshall Islands in October.[35] The signed agreements are now before Congress for funding consideration. Congress previously funded the COFAs for a twenty-year period in 2003.[36] The total cost for all three of the twenty-year agreements would be roughly $7 billion spread over the period 2024 to 2043, according to the Congressional Research Service.[37] President Biden’s Deputy Secretary of State nominee Kurt Campbell stated during his Senate confirmation hearing on December 7 that “if we don’t get it [COFA funding] you can expect that literally the next day Chinese diplomats — military and other folks — will be on the plane… trying to secure a better deal for China.”[38]


These three island countries control key sea lanes that provide a secure route connecting American allies and partners, such as the Philippines and Taiwan, to the US territory of Guam and the state of Hawaii. Palau and the Marshall Islands are 2 of the 13 countries that maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.[39]

The loss of COFA funding would present an opportunity for the CCP to expand its economic influence with these vital Pacific Island countries. For example, this funding loss would exacerbate Palau’s existing deficit, which amounts to $37 million as of its 2021 budget of $150 million.[40] This is an economic vulnerability that the CCP could partially fill by encouraging PRC nationals to vacation in Palau. The CCP cut tourism to Palau over the last decade to nearly zero as punishment for maintaining full diplomatic relations with Taiwan.[41] The reversal of this CCP policy would provide the party with economic leverage to wield over Palau in the event of future policy disagreements. The expansion of the CCP’s economic influence in Palau would also provide the party a leverage point to coerce the countries into switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China (PRC). The PRC aims to coerce countries into switching diplomatic recognition to falsely argue that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China rather than a legitimate country named the Republic of China.

The loss of COFA funding would also provide the CCP an opportunity to expand influence efforts targeting Micronesian political elites. The CCP has completed infrastructure projects throughout the country, such as houses for the country’s president, vice president, speakers of congress, and chief justice.[42] Axios reported that former Micronesian officials confirmed receiving gifts from the PRC, such as money, while on official state visits to the country.[43] The lack of COFA funding would exacerbate the appeal of CCP monetary gifts or infrastructure projects that target the Micronesian political elite.

Israel-Hamas War

PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized the need for an immediate ceasefire to the Israel-Hamas War during separate conversations with American and Iranian officials. Wang held a phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on December 6.[44] Wang subsequently held a phone call with Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian on December 11.[45] Wang’s emphasis on a ceasefire is consistent with the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that he presented to the United Nations Security Council on November 29. The PRC was president of the UN Security Council in November.[46] Wang called for implementing a “comprehensive cease-fire” and releasing “people in captivity,” providing humanitarian supplies to Gaza, and pursuing the two-state solution.[47] His proposal came after CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping stated his desire on November 21 for “all parties” to implement an immediate ceasefire, end collective punishments against the people of Gaza, allow the flow of humanitarian relief, and prevent the conflict from spreading across the Middle East.[48] The PRC voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire on December 12.[49]

Wang’s comments are consistent with the PRC’s efforts to use the Israel-Hamas War to bolster its image as a fair, responsible broker in contrast to the “biased” United States. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and state propaganda outlets have repeatedly condemned violence between Palestine and Israel since October 7 but never condemned Hamas. They continue to call for an immediate ceasefire and promote a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.[50] The PRC’s targeted criticism of Israel and call for an immediate ceasefire align with the views of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Arab states.[51] The PRC MFA and state-owned outlets, such as the Global Times, previously criticized US support for Israel and claimed that the PRC has no “selfish interest” in the conflict and is committed to bringing peace and justice.[52] The PRC proposal would be tantamount to a defeat for Israel, as CTP and ISW reported on November 29.[53]


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[12] https://news.ltn dot



[15] http://my-formosa dot com/DOC_201502.htm



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[26] https://pco dot


[28] https://www.fmprc dot

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