Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Year eve call for the reunification of mainland China with breakaway Taiwan looms large over the Presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan which will be held on January 13.

Xi’s call for unification is not new. The “One China” policy has always been the cornerstone of China’s domestic and foreign policy. But the call has assumed salience now for three reasons:

First, Xi gave the call in his New Year’s eve message, placing it at the head of his speech. Second, the issue has come to the geopolitical centre-stage with the exacerbation of the Sino-US conflict and the growing tension in the South China Sea. Third, Taiwan is going to the polls on January 13 to elect a new President and parliament, polls in which reunification is a dominant issue.

Indeed, the elections have given the issue of reunification immediacy. The attitude of the post-poll government to this issue will be a critical factor in the development of relations between the Xi regime in Beijing and the one in Taipei.

The way the reunification issue plays out will determine whether the relationship between China and Taiwan will be one of mutual tolerance and peaceful trading, or of antagonism which could set the stage for an armed conflict.

Reunification is a critical issue for Xi Jinping also. Re-absorption of Taiwan is an unfinished part of the Chinese communist revolution. Mao Zedong’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) was able to drive the Japanese and the United States-backed Kuomintang (KMT) out of the mainland by 1949. But it could not take Taiwan to which the KMT had fled.

In 1997, China was able to get Hong Kong back from the British peacefully. Macao was secured from the Portuguese in 1999, also peacefully. But Taiwan has remained elusive, being armed to the teeth and protected by the US.

Xi Jinping is very keen on getting Taiwan back whether by peaceful means or war. While there is no official time frame, it is well known that he would like China completely unified by 2049, the centenary year of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The imperial government of China had ceded Taiwan (then known as Formosa) to Japan in 1895. It was taken by the US from Japan in 1945 towards the end of World War II. But it was handed over to the KMT in 1949 when the latter fled from mainland China and sought refuge there.

Although no party or political leader in Taiwan has openly sought reunification, improvement of economic and trade relations with Beijing is sought by parties. But the degree of cooperation desired with China varies.

Strangely enough, the KMT, which had had the sharpest and longest contradictions with the mainland’s Communists, now wants great cooperation with Beijing. If the KMT wins the Presidential and parliamentary elections, ousting the anti-China Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), relations between Taipei and Beijing will improve and the chances of war will recede.

The US will of course get upset, as it will be losing a key ally against China. But some analysts say that peace on this front may relieve the US of the responsibility for Taiwan’s defence. If the next US President wants to wash himself off the responsibility for other countries’ defence, peace on the Taiwan-China front will be welcomed in Washington DC.

The frontrunner in the Presidential election is William Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is seen as more independence-leaning. His closest rival is Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), which is seen as more Beijing-friendly.

The KMT brands the DPP a “dangerous supporter of Taiwan's formal independence.” But the DPP says it will maintain the status quo in which there are dealings with China without merging with China.

The DPP says that it had repeatedly offered talks with China only to be rebuffed. This is because Beijing believes that the DPP is separatist.

The KMT favours closer ties with China but strongly denies being a camp follower. Like the DPP, it says it will keep boosting Taiwan's defences. KMT’s candidate Hou says that efforts to paint him "red" - the colour of China's Communist Party - and portray him as pro-China are a “nasty smear.”

However, interestingly enough, both DPP and KMT maintain that “only Taiwan's people can decide their future.” In other words, there is no absolute opposition to either merger or remaining independent. Opinions are fluid on this issue.

The Presidential election will be a close fight, opinion polls cited by ‘Reuters’ and ‘Channel News Asia’ show. A TVBS poll conducted on Monday put DPP’s Lai at 33% with KMT’s Hou at 30% and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je of the small Taiwan People's Party at 22%. The ETtoday poll on Tuesday put Lai at 38.9%, Hou at 35.8% and Ko at 22.4%.

A survey done by My Formosa released on December 28 found support for Lai at 40%, and support for Hou at 28.9 %. Support for the third candidate, Dr Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), was 17.6%.

If Lai Ching-te (64) of the DPP is elected President (since he is the frontrunner) frostiness and friction with Beijing are likely to continue. A ‘Channel News Asia’ analysis recalls that China cut off formal dialogue with Taiwan after Ms Tsai Ing-wen was elected President in 2016. This time, China has labelled Lai Ching-te a “practical worker for Taiwan independence, a separatist and troublemaker.”

The DPP says it wants to pursue dialogue with China but without preconditions. China has an important precondition, namely, Taiwan has to make it clear that it has no intention of seeking formal independence, and endorse an agreement called the “1992 Consensus.”

The “1992 Consensus” forged between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party, states there is only “One China”. The DPP denies that there is consensus on this.

Taiwan’s political parties have different conceptions of “One China”. It could either mean total unification or greater cooperation. It could also mean “One Country-Two Systems.”

In the near term, barring unprecedented actions by a DPP government, it is highly unlikely that China will resort to forcible unification. It is felt that Chinese experts will have carefully studied the Ukraine-Russia conflict, which has shown that a quick decisive victory may be difficult.

If Hou Yu-ih (66) of the KMT wins, cross-strait tensions will certainly decrease. Hou and his party have framed the 2024 election as a choice between war and peace. If he wins, China will resume official dialogue with Taiwan because Hou accepts the “1992 Consensus.”

Hou will follow former President Ma Ying-jeou’s approach to dealing with Beijing and Washington, carefully improving relations with Beijing without losing autonomy to have ties with Washington DC.

In the 2008 to 2016 period, when Ma was President, Taiwan and China signed 23 cooperation treaties. Ma met Xi in Singapore in 2015, the first between leaders of the two sides since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949.

The KMT’s senior officials have been making trips to China to meet with key figures in the Chinese government since then. Trade agreements will be jump started. These will help the KMT show that its government is able to bring tangible benefits to Taiwan.

Also at stake are the parliamentary elections. The DPP has a majority in parliament. But opinion polls show that no party will get more than 50% of the seats. Therefore, no matter who wins the Presidency, parliament may be an obstacle to quick decision-making.

Cover Photograph: Chinese balloons are back over Taiwan.