The Last Election in Taiwan and Cognitive Warfare
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Jan , 2024

Republic of China (Taiwan) held its general elections on 13 January – its 8thdirect election to elect its 16thPresident, Vice-President &113 Legislatures. This election is significant from a strategic perspective as it involves the national interests of two of the only three great powers on our planet – the US, China & Russia[1].

China is complaining about the US sending wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces”.

The US and China are now engaged in a general ‘security competition’ and election in Taiwan sharpens this competition. Following Biden administration’s plan to send an unofficial delegation comprising former senior officials shortly after elections on 10 January, China’s Foreign Ministry on 11 January stated, “China firmly opposes the US having any form of official contact with the Taiwan region….the election in the Taiwan region is purely China’s internal affair that brooks no foreign interference”[2].

A cognitive warfare[3] is brewing between the two where like China, the US too is opposed to any outside interference or influence in Taiwan’s upcoming elections. China is complaining about the US sending wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces”. In 2023, both countries demonstrated their resolve in pursuit of their respective national interests and positions on Taiwan and this demonstration of resolve included the application of military power to shape the evolving situation.

Elements of cognitive warfare are also present within Taiwan’s intra-political election struggle. The threat from China is significant in operationalizing cognitive warfare by both DPP & KMT who according to TPP are engaged and trapped within the framework of “independence & reunification”. TPP Presidential candidate believes that 90% of Taiwanese people prefer “status quo” as against the conditions of independence or reunification.

While DPP is being painted as corrupt& incompetent by the KMT candidates, the DPP is warning the voters of a general slow-down in the quality and competitiveness of Taiwan’s economy along with arresting its defense expenditure if KMT comes to power. It is part of DPP’s election propaganda that Taiwan might slip back to the unratified Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) under KMT which sparked mass student protests in 2014.

Political Party

Presidential Candidate Propaganda Point

Projected Share of Vote [As on January 02]

Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] Lai Ching Te 1.        “Choose the right Road” and not reverse eight years of progress by the Tsai Ing-wen administration

2.        protecting Taiwan’s democracy against CCP interference



Kuomintang (KMT)


Hou Yu-ih

1.       criticizing the DPP for alleged corruption and incompetence.

2.       appeal to all anti-DPP voters to strategically concentrate their votes given Hou’s potential to defeat DPP.

3.       Share power with TPP


Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Ko Wen-je 1.       Criticism of both major parties – KMT & DPP.

2.       Economics-focused “Third Way” campaign.


The Last Election:

From a mainland perspective, the patience for reunification is running out and the pressure on President Xi and his team remains high both due to self-imposed reunification objectives and the evolving international situation which has turned negative in recent years. China may feel the window of opportunity for reunification with limited possibility of foreign intervention may be shutting rapidly[4]. China has consistently demonstrated its willingness to use force if push comes to shove as part of its cognitive warfare by deceptively reinforcing the US led western cognitive warfare strategy of painting China’s intention as a threat to peace and stability of the region.

For China, Taiwan is not a true or primary strategic concern from a military-strategic& operational perspective, it is – Philippines, and for the US it is not Taiwan, it is the strait in between China and Taiwan.

The Foreign Ministry of China now uses the term “Taiwan region” as against “Taiwan” and thereby underscores the relation between its objective of reunification with that of peace and stability of the region. Many events within China’s domestic politics and civil-military relations have demonstrated a lack in confidence on part of China’s political leadership to execute a military operation to secure Taiwan physically. The problem confronting China is not just the state of its military modernization which has come a long way and built around the concept of ‘strategic deterrence’ and ‘defense’ but also military geography – Taiwan Strait.

Through the employment of cognitive warfare both the US and China are concealing their true or primary strategic intention and both are exploiting each other’s strategy in this regard to maximize their chance to succeed. For China, Taiwan is not a true or primary strategic concern from a military-strategic& operational perspective, it is – Philippines, and for the US it is not Taiwan, it is the strait in between China and Taiwan.

The importance and subsequent strategies adopted by the US follows the military necessity for the US naval forces to control the Taiwan Strait during the Korean War in early 1950’s. The US has crafted a strategy based on ‘strategic ambiguity’ by technically interpreting China’s ‘One China Policy’ for beneficial economic relations and rebuilding its military capability to intervene successfully in case of China’s use of military force. The US in recent years has demonstrated that it has peaked as a global military power given its dependence on the ‘offensive’ aspects of war strategy.

The US strategy has therefore shifted towards retarding China’s military modernization and economic development and remaining on guard to exploit situations where in it can appear as a credible security provider to the region. The US is heavily invested in military infrastructure in Philippines and China’s recent aggressive action against Philippines maritime forces underscores the fact that it is Philippines not Taiwan that is the center of gravity in the evolving strategic situation in this region.

The situation that will emerge after the Taiwan election on 13 January will have no major impact or radically alter the strategic situation. The problem for China is not if DPP or KMT will win the elections and the consequences that will follow from it although KMT is preferred, but – History. Taiwan’s national experience is unique compared to mainland China, and therefore located on different time & space cognition. The previous generations in Taiwan were bi-lingual speakers (Japanese and Chinese) and hold a completely different picture of Japan at the level of national consciousness to that of China.

Taiwan has now become a bone struck in the Chinese throat – Catch 22.

Taiwan’s national identity, culture and adherence to democratic values will remain a major challenge to China’s political objective of reunification. The longer China waits, the more difficult it will be for China given that Taiwan’s identity is now deep rooted and well-flourished. China recognizes this challenge and has adapted its strategy for reunification which employs military power only to the extent of limiting or neutralizing foreign meddling. This strategy when employed via cognitive warfare has led to situation where China is directly and indirectly involved with conflicts far away from its areas of core concern – Israel-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas.

The Times of Israel reported a TV report without mentioning China’s hand in IDF’s(261st Brigade) discovery of huge catchment of Chinese made arms in Gaza[5]. To discount the role of US as credible security provider to its friends and allies is at the core of this strategy. The US has demonstrated a meek and unorganized response in Ukraine and Israel, and its own QUAD partners remain independent in their choices when faced with threat to freedom of navigation in the strategically important region of Red Sea.

Shaping Taiwan’s attitude and perception regarding US resolve to intervene on its behalf is one important cognitive battle that China is waging. This alone can act as a force multiplier in convincing the Taiwanese population for reunification as against breaking their will through other means.

Taiwan has now become a bone struck in the Chinese throat – Catch 22. In its quest for sovereignty China depended on a reunification agenda to bring legitimacy to the party and this very quest has now challenged the party with its own survival. Furthermore, the idea of peaceful reunification and dependence on use of force to secure its strategy of peaceful reunification contradicts (mao dun) each other.

For China, it doesn’t matter who wins the election which is a local election, what’s important for Beijing is – Taiwan’s leadership must be “patriots” and devoid of separatist tendencies.

Amidst growing concern of China’s PLA violating Taiwan’s ADIZ/median line is manner unseen before, China was also preparing its Fujian province to assimilate Taiwan’s identity and its values. China therefore does not say it will use military force but that it cannot commit to not using it. For observers and analyst applying cases elsewhere – Russia- Ukraine conflict – to the Taiwan question must note that China is not Russia or Israel. All that CCP wants is the symbolic military footprint in Taiwan as in Hong Kong to firmly establish its sovereignty and there by gaining legitimacy to rule – an in-house fight, its strategic attention from a military perspective is in Philippines.

China still aims at a ceremonial handing over of Taiwan as that occurred in the case of Hong Kong on the midnight of 01 July, 1997. Taiwan was a non-issue and if Korean War had not broken out, Taiwan would have been part of mainland then itself. In its official recording the US military leadership has admitted that China possessed a military advantage to secure Taiwan but only in the absence of US nuclear forces during the Korean War.

To this day the US intentions are concealed in ambiguity and doubts persists regarding its behavior in defense of Taiwan.

For China, it doesn’t matter who wins the election which is a local election, what’s important for Beijing is – Taiwan’s leadership must be “patriots” and devoid of separatist tendencies[6]. What matters is Taiwan’s national experience which is not same as that of China and a source of challenge in reunification. All parties including DPP wish for dialogue as against confrontation and seek better economic ties with mainland China.

The puzzle that China wants to solve is self-created by simultaneously employing concepts of – sovereignty, peaceful reunification & use of force and thereby operating with intense contradiction. This contradiction is not only influenced by the intentions and capability of the actors involved but also “time”.

China cannot afford to continue ‘rattling’ indefinitely and will have to sooner than later demonstrate its true resolve in application of military for both domestic and international consumption. The moment China does so it will destroy the concept of peaceful reunification. In many ways, it’s already too late and in China’s own admission the Jiang & Hu era had contributed to the slowing down the process of reunification and thus forcing the present administration under Xi to take more assertive & aggressive steps to catch up.

From a perspective of cognitive warfare, for reunification China requires to convince the Taiwanese population…

As time runs out and the situation becomes compelling for China to act, China may not be in situation to witness yet another general election across the strait.       


Late night on 13 January, Taiwan election results declared Vice President William Lai Ching-te from the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as Taiwan’s president. China in its reaction to this development stated, the DPP does not represent the mainstream public opinion on the island and that the vote “will not impede the inevitable trend of China’s reunification”[7].

William Lai Ching-te in his address following his victory stated, “we must replace encirclement with exchanges, and confrontation with dialogue, in order to achieve peace and co-prosperity, and the only way out is to have peace, equality and a democratic dialogue…. this is most in line with the interests of the people of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, and is the only way for a win-win situation.”

This is a major change in tone since 2020 elections when President elect Tsai after securing 57% vote share stated, “Democratic Taiwan and our democratically elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation. The results of this election have made that answer crystal clear”. Although the DPP secured victory it has only won 51 seats as against KMT’s 52 seats – a major change when compared to 2020 elections. Also compared to Tsai’s 57% vote share in 2020, William Lai secured just over 40% in 2024. Furthermore, the 2020 elections which saw the highest voter turnout (74.9%) since 2008, stood reduced at 71.86%.

Political Party

2024- No: of legislature seats 2020 – No: of legislature seats Vote % (President)


Vote % (President)


Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)


61 40.05%


Kuomintang (KMT)


38 33.49%


Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)




Independent Candidate


People’s First Party      


In conclusion, the ongoing political drama and military brinksmanship in this part of the world will continue uninterrupted – weather balloons, strategic air and naval patrol, missile tests, amphibious landing drills, testing joint-warfare doctrines and other resolute measures along with cognitive warfare. From a perspective of cognitive warfare, for reunification China requires to convince the Taiwanese population – 1) that China has seen to it that the Yankees are not coming to help, 2) that Taiwanese way of life will continue uninterrupted following a reunification.

Furthermore, for China to execute military operation in pursuit of reunification it is necessary for it to create a condition wherein its actions are interpreted – both domestically & internationally – as a counter-attack or counter-reaction as against pre-emption at the strategic level. This is to align its action with its strategic culture.

The source of conflict in this context is not the elections in Taiwan, but – 1) the US Department of Defense’s hyping of 2023 being a “decisive year” and activities undertaken Pacific Deterrence Initiative[8], 2) the US military’s attempt at strategic encirclement taking advantage of footholds in the form of its allies and partners, 3) most importantly, trade war & sanctions in high-tech sector that has led to a slump in US-China bilateral trade by 11.6% in 2023 and categorization of Philippines as a “off-beat case” in South China Sea region[9].

Domestic political situation of Taiwan only acts as an “add on” in this context. The overall situation with respect to the Taiwan question rests in favor of China, but may not remain so in near future. China’s rhetoric – vote for peace or war – is hence part of its cognitive warfare strategy.


[1] John Mearsheimer (2024)

[2]Mo Jingxi (2024), “US meddling in China’s internal affairs opposed”China Daily, 12 January.

[3]Cognitive Warfare: the activities conducted in synchronization with other instruments of power, to affect attitudes and behaviors by influencing, protecting, and/or disrupting individual and group cognitions to gain an advantage.“Cognitive Warfare: Strengthening and Defending the Mind” Allied Command Transformation, 05 April, 2023.

[4]President Xi’s speech delivered at Party Congress.

[5]Available at tv-report-huge-quantities-of-chinese-made-weapons-being-used-by-hamas-in-gaza/ [Accessed on 14 January, 2024]

[6]‘The basic fact that Taiwan is part of China will not change regardless of the elections result of the region: FM” Global Times, 12 January, 2024.

[7] Available at taiwan-ruling-partys-lai-wins-presidential-election

[8]Liu Xuanzun (2023), “Pentagon hyping of ‘decisive year’ in ‘Indo-Pacific’ exposes military hegemony, Cold War mentality toward China” Global Times, 28 December.

[9]US urged to loosen high-tech curbs on China as bilateral trade slumps 11.6% in 2023”Global Times, 12 January, 2024. “Hopefully Philippines doesn’t become ‘offbeat case’ in S. China Sea region” global Times, 10 January, 2024.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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