China-Taiwan Weekly Update, December 7, 2023

China-Taiwan Weekly Update, December 7, 2023 

Authors: Nils Peterson, Matthew Sperzel, and Daniel Shats of the Institute for the Study of War 

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

Data Cutoff: December 5 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. KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih gained significant support since November 24 and closed the gap with DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, who leads in the polls.
  2. A loss of Compacts of Free Association (COFA) funding for Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands would exacerbate CCP leverage points over these countries.
  3. The CCP aims to use the December 7 EU-PRC summit to advance its goal of increasing economic cooperation with Europe while preventing an EU consensus on “de-risking” from materializing.
  4. The Philippines Coast Guard announced over 100 Chinese Maritime Militia vessels “swarmed” the Philippine-controlled Whitson Reef in the South China Sea.

Taiwan Presidential Election

KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih gained significant support since November 24 and closed the gap with DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, who leads in the polls. Taiwan’s presidential election settled into a three-way race last week after Lai, Hou, and TPP candidate Ko Wen-je registered their candidacies during the week of November 20. Hou and Ko registered and announced their respective running mates on November 24, the last day for registration, after the collapse of their eleventh-hour negotiations to form a joint ticket to challenge Lai.[1] Polling data since the joint ticket collapse shows Hou Yu-ih’s support has risen considerably. The Taiwan News Poll of Polls on December 5 showed Hou in second place with 29.3% support, which is a nearly 7% jump from 22.5% on November 20. The same poll aggregator showed Lai in first place at 33.2% on December 5, a slight rise from 31% on November 20. The aggregator also showed that Ko remains in third place at 22%, which is similar to the 21.8% support he had in the polls on November 20.[2]

Hou’s rise in the polls reflects the consolidation of the KMT base around his candidacy. Formosa E-News polling showed that around 90% of self-identified KMT voters now support Hou’s candidacy, compared to 82% on November 24 and below 80 before that. His support with voters over 50, which is his strongest constituency, has also increased since November 24, according to Formosa and ETtoday polls.[3]

Hou and the KMT have made several moves that likely contributed to re-integrating their base and gaining support in the polls. First, Hou picked KMT firebrand Jaw Shaw-kong as his running mate. Jaw is a well-known KMT hardliner and media personality who has been outspoken in his harsh criticism of the incumbent DPP administration and his support for closer engagement with the PRC.[4] Second, the KMT signaled that former Kaohsiung mayor and 2020 KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu would become the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan if a KMT-aligned coalition wins the legislative elections. Han enjoys high popularity among KMT supporters.[5] Third, Hou and Jaw have continued to push for traditional KMT positions, including re-starting talks with the PRC on the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA).[6] The KMT Ma Ying-jeou administration initially signed the CSSTA with the PRC in 2013. The agreement was never ratified in the legislature, however, because student protesters opposing the agreement stormed the Legislative Yuan building in 2014. The student protests grew into the nationwide Sunflower Movement.[7]

Independent candidate Terry Gou’s exit from the race on November 24 possibly added to the rise in Hou’s support. Gou had policy positions similar to Hou’s and polled at 6.7% in the Poll of Polls on November 20 before he dropped out of the race.[8] Some of Gou’s supporters may have gone to Ko Wen-je, however. Ko and Gou were both perceived as “outsider” candidates and frequently discussed cooperating during the election.[9] Taiwan News polling analyst Courtney Donovan Smith assessed based on polling data that Ko absorbed most of Gou’s supporters. Smith said Ko did not rise accordingly in the polls because some of his KMT-leaning supporters moved to support Hou.[10] According to Formosa, KMT-leaning voters who supported Ko Wen-je declined from 9.4% on November 24 to 3.8% by December 4.[11]

Hou may have gained supporters who had previously backed Ko. New polling data from Formosa and other organizations suggests that many KMT-identifying supporters of Ko Wen-je have moved to support Hou Yu-ih in the aftermath of the joint ticket collapse and Hou’s consolidation of the KMT base. Hou’s emergence in the polls as the clear leader among the opposition following the joint ticket collapse may also have improved his standing among electors voting “strategically” to unseat the DPP. There are limits to how many additional supporters Hou could draw from Ko, however. The majority of Ko Wen-je’s remaining supporters are young people between the ages of 20 and 39. This demographic group is predominantly contested by Lai and the DPP, not by the KMT and Hou.[12] This suggests that if Ko Wen-je drops out of the race, many of his supporters could switch to Lai rather than Hou.

Hou’s ability to further close the gap with Lai during the coming weeks depends on his ability to attract new supporters from the KMT base or more moderate voters. These two constituencies likely require mutually exclusive strategies, however. Hou can continue to lean on his deep-Blue messaging to attract even more KMT or pan-Blue-identifying voters who were previously unsure about him, but such messaging would likely alienate more moderate voters. Alternatively, fighting with Lai and Ko for the “center” could cost Hou the support of some of his KMT base. The success of either of these strategies will be made easier if Lai’s support levels drop.

The dominant election narrative continues to focus on cross-strait relations. The KMT has continued its narrative that the election is a choice between war and peace. Jaw and Hou have promoted dialogue with the PRC and re-starting cross-strait agreements, such as the CSSTA.[13] Hou said that Taiwan declaring independence will lead to war.[14] Both attempted to mitigate criticism that they are “pro-China” by stressing that they are also committed to alliances with the United States and other liberal democracies.[15] The DPP has framed the election as a choice between “democracy and autocracy” while mitigating fears that a Lai victory would lead to war with the PRC. ROC president Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP said in a New York Times interview that the PRC was too overwhelmed with domestic issues to invade Taiwan.[16] The DPP has continued to highlight Chinese Communist Party (CCP) election interference and portray its opponents as doing the bidding of the CCP.[17] TPP candidate Ko Wen-je has tried to shift focus to domestic issues and said on December 3 that the election would be about “unification” versus “independence” if he were not in the race. He said that the pro-independence or “pro-America” faction (Lai and the DPP) would win in a simple two-way race between the DPP and KMT.[18]

Several other domestic issues, such as economic growth and energy issues, could shape the dynamics of the election in the coming weeks. None of them have been as prominent as cross-strait relations in the prevailing narrative of the election. Some are gaining traction, however. Ko, Hou, and other KMT officials criticized the DPP on November 30 and December 5 for its plan to phase out nuclear power and criticized Lai’s perceived reversal on this issue, for example.[19] Scandals that emerge or re-surface in the coming weeks could also harm support for candidates of the involved political party. Scandals related to sexual misconduct and mishandling of food imports have hurt the DPP earlier in the summer and fall, for example.

The following table lists some Taiwanese domestic issues roughly in decreasing order of importance to the election and shows which party would benefit from their rise to prominence.


Which party would benefit?

by highlighting this?

Economic growth


Over 60% of Taiwanese say the economy is “not good” under the incumbent DPP according to Formosa. Young and educated voters, which are the key constituencies for the DPP, are especially dissatisfied.[20]

Energy policy


The DPP Tsai administration plans to phase out nuclear power by 2025. The KMT and TPP have attacked these plans as dangerous to energy security.[21] Lai Ching-te attempted to backtrack and was criticized by opponents for flipping his position.[22] Taiwan experienced mass power outages in 2021 and 2022.[23]

National security leaks

Context dependent

Both the KMT and DPP have faced scandals in recent months related to the leak of submarine secrets and a legislator’s affair with a PRC national, respectively.[24]

Food scandals


The incumbent DPP has been harmed by scandals related to the import of eggs and pork this year.[25]

Sexual misconduct scandals

Context dependent

The DPP was plagued by sexual assault and harassment scandals in June.[26] New sexual assault scandals involving any of the candidates or members of their party could hurt that candidate’s support levels.

Surrogate mothers


The TPP has been a staunch advocate of legalizing surrogacy in Taiwan and nominated activists on this issue for the vice presidential and top legislator spots.[27] The incumbent DPP administration has also proposed an amendment that would lift the surrogacy ban.[28]

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.[29] It then did so with the Marshall Islands in October.[30] The signed agreements are now before Congress for funding consideration. Congress previously funded the COFAs for a twenty-year period in 2003.[31] 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.[32]

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 state of Hawaii. Palau and the Marshall Islands are two of the 13 countries that maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.[33] This international diplomatic recognition is critical to demonstrating the false nature of CCP claims that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.

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.[34] This presents 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.[35] 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 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.[36] Axios reported that former Micronesian officials confirmed receiving gifts from the PRC, such as money, while on official state visits to the country.[37] The lack of COFA funding would exacerbate the appeal of CCP monetary gifts or infrastructure projects that target the Micronesian political elite.

European Union-People’s Republic of China Summit

The CCP aims to use the December 7 EU-PRC summit to advance its goal of increasing economic cooperation with Europe while preventing an EU consensus on “de-risking” from materializing. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will meet with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang.[38] Party officials messaged that the economic focus of the meeting would surround EU de-risking efforts. This meeting is part of a yearlong effort throughout 2023 by the CCP targeting high-level engagement with leading European states, such as France and Germany, to facilitate economic cooperation. The CCP aims to encourage Sino-European country-to-country cooperation to undermine what the party perceives as hostile EU investigations targeting PRC companies. Policy dissonance between European countries and the EU provides an avenue for the CCP to engage economically with Europe while impeding the creation of a united EU front against the party’s economic interests.

  • PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Wang Wenbin stated at a press briefing on December 4 that the PRC calls on the EU to “always be rational on ‘de-risking.’” Wang further criticized that unspecified “certain individuals selectively emphasize on competing aspects [sic] between China and the EU, [and] deliberately overlook partnerships and hype up ‘de-risking.’”[39] The CCP-controlled English language propaganda outlet Global Times also repeated Wang’s message on December 4 regarding China and Europe choosing cooperation over de-risking.[40]
  • French President Emmanuel Macron and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping previously emphasized the importance of economic cooperation as well as cultural exchanges during their April meeting.[41] Chinese Premier Li Qiang similarly emphasized economic cooperation with German and French officials in late June during a visit to France and Germany.[42]
  • European Commission President Von der Leyen previously announced an investigation into electric vehicle subsidies in China as part of this de-risking effort during her September 15 State of the Union speech.[43] This effort, regardless of intention, runs counter to messages of economic cooperation emphasized by PRC officials towards major European economies like France or Germany.

South China Sea

The Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) announced on December 3 the presence of over 100 Chinese Maritime Militia vessels (CMM) “swarming” the Philippine-controlled Whitson Reef in the South China Sea’s (SCS) contested Spratly Islands since November 13.[44] The PCG stated the number grew to more than 135 vessels by December 3 and that the vessels have not complied with PCG warnings to disperse. PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Wang Wenbin reprimanded the Philippines’ “irresponsible remarks” in a press conference on December 4, stating that the reef is China’s territory and the Chinese fishing vessels sheltered there are operating within the law.[45]

The surge in suspected CMM presence comes amid the Philippines’ completion of a coast guard “monitoring base” on nearby Thitu Island, which was formally inaugurated on December 1. Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano stated he witnessed at least 18 suspected CMM ships and a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel off Thitu while visiting the island for the inauguration ceremony.[46]

The PRC operates hundreds of CMM ships in the SCS at any given time under the guise of fishing vessels.[47] These vessels often remain anchored for extended periods around nearby PRC military bases and contested features. The current “swarm” of 135 vessels surrounding Whitson Reef is unusually high, however. The grouping is the largest since March 2021, when a flotilla of over 220 alleged CMM vessels moored there.[48] The PRC in 2021 similarly justified the ships’ presence as sheltering from rough conditions, despite the prolonged stay of several weeks.[49]

The PRC’s deployment of non-traditional maritime power serves to further its control of claimed territory while manipulating the narrative to portray challengers as aggressors. There is precedent for the PRC using the CMM to gain footholds in the SCS. CMM vessels played a role in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, which ended in the PRC wresting control of the feature from the Philippines.[50] The PRC justified its deployment of paramilitary surveillance ships to confront the Philippines Navy after the latter sought to arrest PRC militiamen for illegal fishing. The Philippines claims the PRC maintained its presence there after an agreement by both parties to withdraw their ships.[51] The PRC erected a barrier to deny entry to the shoal’s lagoon a month later.[52]

The PRC uses the CMM to challenge territorial sovereignty in the SCS more frequently than in other disputes with Japan and Taiwan. Former Rear Admiral of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Katsuya Yamamoto stated in 2019 that the CMM has played a smaller role in the PRC’s maritime incursions in the East China Sea (ECS) than the SCS.[53] Japan suffers routine harassment from Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels, however, mostly near the Senkaku Islands in the ECS. The Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) recorded 127 incursions into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands by the CCG over the twelve months since November 30.[54] Taiwan experiences a constant flow of illegal PRC fishing vessels in its restricted waters. Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) reported 1,081 cases of illegal fishing from PRC vessels in its restricted waters during the twelve months since October 31, resulting in 25 detainments. These instances have not escalated into conflict with the PRC military, however. Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng stated on March 6 that the PRC military approached Taiwan’s contiguous zone in August 2022 and may cross it this year.[55]

Messaging from PRC leadership signals strong backing for the maritime forces’ antagonistic posturing. Xi Jinping urged the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and CCG to defend the PRC’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests during a visit to the East China Sea Regional Command headquarters in Shanghai on December 1.[56]

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