China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has tied his country’s great power status to a singular promise: unifying the motherland with Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as sacred, lost territory. A few weeks ago, Mr. Xi called this a “historical inevitability.”
But Taiwan’s election on Saturday, handing the presidency to a party that promotes the island’s separate identity for the third time in a row, confirmed that this boisterous democracy has moved even further away from China and its dream of unification.
After a campaign of festival-like rallies, where huge crowds shouted, danced and waved matching flags, Taiwan’s voters ignored China’s warnings that a vote for the Democratic Progressive Party was a vote for war. They made that choice anyway.
Lai Ching-te, a former doctor and the current vice president, who Beijing sees as a staunch separatist, will be Taiwan’s next leader. It’s an act of self-governed defiance that proved what many already knew: Beijing’s arm-twisting of Taiwan — economically and with military harassment at sea and in the air — has only strengthened the island’s desire to protect its de facto independence and move beyond China’s giant shadow.
“The more hard-line, tougher approach hasn’t worked,” said Susan Shirk, a research professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of “Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise.” “That’s the reality of Taiwanese politics.”
That evolution, cultural and political, comes with risks. Mr. Lai’s victory forces Mr. Xi to face a lack of progress. And while China’s full response will play out over months or years, China’s Taiwan affairs office said Saturday night that the election cannot change the direction of cross-strait relations, effectively ensuring that the dynamic of brinkmanship and stress will continue and most likely intensify.
China and the United States have made Taiwan a test of competing sensitivities and visions. To Beijing, the island is a remnant of its civil war that the United States has no business meddling with. To Washington, it is the first line of defense for global stability, a democracy of 23 million people and the microprocessor factory for the world.
The gargantuan stakes add gravity to every word or policy that Mr. Lai or his party might deliver now and after his inauguration in May. With Taiwan’s sense of self and China’s expectations in conflict, Mr. Xi is not expected to sit idly by.
Before the election, in editorials and official comments, Chinese officials painted Mr. Lai as a villain, calling him a stubborn “Taiwan independence worker,” a “destroyer of cross-strait peace” and potentially the “creator of a dangerous war.”
During the campaign, Mr. Lai, 64, a veteran politician respected by supporters for his quiet determination, said that Taiwan did not need formal independence. In a news conference after his victory, he said he would seek a balanced approach to cross-strait relations including “cooperation with China,” following the path of his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen.
But there is little chance of China changing its opinion.
“Lai Ching-te is an impulsive and politically biased figure, so we cannot rule out the possibility that unpredictable and unknown developments may occur during his tenure,” said Zhu Songling, a professor of Taiwan studies at Beijing Union University.
“I’m afraid it’s very dangerous,” he added, noting that Mr. Xi’s views on Taiwan were clear. That includes his insistence that force can be used if necessary.
Western scholars of Chinese politics are not much more optimistic.
“The next four years will be anything but stable in U.S.-China and cross-strait relations,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University.
Like other analysts, he said to expect a familiar suite of pressure tactics.
At the very least, China will keep trying to manipulate Taiwan’s politics with disinformation, threats and economic incentives. Chinese officials have also hinted they could target trade, eliminating more tariff concessions.
Expanded military drills are another possibility. Chinese fighter jets, drones and ships already encroach on Taiwan almost daily.
Beijing has also shown that it will keep prodding Washington to pressure Taiwan and to cut military support. Messages of alarm are becoming a common feature of U.S.-China diplomacy.
In Washington, on the eve of Taiwan’s election, Liu Jianchao, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international department, met with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. The United States said Mr. Blinken “reiterated the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Mr. Liu, based on other official statements, most likely warned the United States not to intervene “in the Taiwan region” — a complaint sparked by an announcement that a delegation of former officials would head to Taipei after the election. Such visits have followed past elections. China’s Foreign Ministry condemned “the American side’s brazen chattering.”
There are no plans in Washington to go silent, however, or constrain cooperation. Quite the opposite. Last year, the Biden administration announced $345 million in military aid for Taiwan, with weapons drawn from American stockpiles. Bills in Congress would also tighten economic ties to Taiwan, easing tax policy and laying a foundation for economic sanctions against China if it attacks.
Having worked with the Americans as vice president, Mr. Lai can move faster, analysts said, possibly into more sensitive areas.
The United States could increase collaboration on cybersecurity, strengthening communication networks to a point that blurs the line with (or prepares for) intelligence sharing. It could seek to place military logistics equipment on the island — a strategy the Pentagon is introducing throughout the region.
It is also an open secret that American military advisers, mostly retired officers, have a growing presence in Taiwan. Some Taiwanese officials call them “English teachers.” Under Mr. Lai, many more could be on the way.
“Beijing has been turning a blind eye, so the question is: What size of that presence will cross the Rubicon?” said Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. He added: “Hopefully each additional step will not be seen as overtly provocative to elicit or justify a massive Chinese reaction.”
War, of course, is not inevitable. It may be less likely right now, when China is busy with a dismal economy and the United States with wars in Europe and the Middle East.
Some analysts also hope that Mr. Xi will find a way to claim victory in the election and step back from antagonism. With a third-party candidate, Ko Wen-je, winning 26 percent of the vote with a vague focus on a middle path in China relations, Mr. Lai won with just 40 percent.
“It’s in China’s national interest to expand the path of peaceful integration so they won’t have to fight,” Professor Shirk said. “There are a lot of people watching this interaction and Beijing’s reaction — all the investors are watching it too.”
In Taiwan, however, there may be little Mr. Xi can do to polish China’s image. In recent surveys, less than 10 percent of Taiwanese respondents considered China trustworthy.
“We have seen too many examples of what Xi did to Hong Kong and how he treated his people,” said Cheng Ting-bin, 56, a teacher in Taipei who voted for Mr. Lai.
Most Taiwanese see their future elsewhere. On Saturday, many said they hoped the government could leverage the powerful semiconductor industry to build connections to Southeast Asia and Europe.
During the campaign, any identification with China seemed to have been erased. Though Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China, a holdover from when Chinese nationalists fled there, R.O.C. references were hard to find. At Mr. Lai’s rallies, supporters wore shimmering green jackets with “Team Taiwan” written in English across the back.
Even the Nationalist Party, known for favoring closer ties with Beijing, emphasized deterrence, the status quo and Taiwanese identity. Its candidate, Hou Yu-ih, spoke with such a strong Taiwanese accent that Mandarin speakers unfamiliar with local inflections had a hard time understanding him.
In many ways, the election was less of a referendum on China policy than usual. Cost-of-living issues became more dominant in part because the candidates’ platforms on foreign affairs all aligned with what most people said they wanted: a stronger military, closer ties with the democratic world, and a commitment to the status quo that avoids provoking Beijing but also seeks to tiptoe out of its orbit.
“What we want is just to preserve our way of life,” said Alen Hsu, 65, a retiree who said his father had come from China and his son serves in the Taiwanese Air Force.
“China,” he added, “simply cannot be trusted.”
John Liu contributed reporting from Taipei, Claire Fu from Seoul, and Amy Chang Chien from Chiayi, Taiwan.