(CNN) — It does sound familiar, with the 2024 presidential election having far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world. But it’s happening much sooner than you think.
Taiwan, a vibrant small Asian democracy on the doorstep of a larger authoritarian neighbor, will hold presidential and parliamentary elections this Saturday, with results that will be felt far beyond its borders.
China’s Communist Party leaders have long claimed Taiwan as part of their territory and have never controlled it, but they are watching the outcome closely.
The vast majority of people in Taiwan do not want to be ruled by China, and China’s strongman leader Xi Jinping has tightened internal controls as China becomes more aggressive toward its neighbors.
China openly opposes Taiwan’s current ruling party and views the election as a choice between “war and peace, prosperity and decline.” In his New Year’s Eve speech, Xi Jinping issued a new warning to Taiwan, declaring: “The reunification of the motherland is a historical necessity.”
Taiwan remains the biggest source of tension between China and the United States, its main international backer and arms supplier, while relations between the world’s two superpowers have been rocky for years.
How China responds to Taiwan’s voters’ decision this weekend will test whether Beijing and Washington can control tensions or move toward a more serious confrontation or even conflict.
Here’s what you need to know about this crucial election.
Who are the candidates?
Three men are vying to succeed President Tsai Ing-wen, who has been in power for eight years and is barred from running again due to term limits.
The favorite in the close race is Lai Ching-te, the current vice president of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which defends Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and its independent identity from China.
Rath, a doctor-turned-politician, has previously described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence,” a statement that has angered Beijing and worried Washington. But he softened his stance during the campaign, promising to maintain the “status quo” like Tsai Ing-wen and proposing dialogue with Beijing “under the principles of equality and dignity.” Beijing rejected his proposal, calling him a “warmaker” and “a destroyer of cross-strait peace.”
Jimmy Lai’s running mate, Michelle Hsiao, is a well-known figure in Washington, where she most recently served as Taiwan’s special envoy. China twice imposed sanctions on Xiao He, citing him as a “die-hard separatist”.
Lai’s biggest rival is Hou Yuyi, a former policeman and popular New Taipei City mayor from the Kuomintang, a party that has historically advocated closer ties with China. Hou accused the DPP of provoking China and advocated establishing “peaceful relations” with neighboring countries by maintaining open dialogue and promoting economic and social relations. It also pledged to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses.
The third contender, Ko Wenzhe, is from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which he only founded in 2019. The charismatic former Taipei mayor sees himself as a political outsider. His focus on fundamental issues has been especially popular with young voters, many of whom are frustrated with Taiwan’s traditional political duopoly, stagnant wages and unaffordable housing.
On relations with China, Ke advocated a “middle way” approach, accusing the DPP of being too hostile and the KMT of being too deferential.
No political party in Taiwan has been elected for a third term. If Lai is re-elected by the DPP, it will be unprecedented in Taiwan’s 27-year democratic history and a powerful symbol of the failure of China’s bellicose approach to Taiwan.
What is China’s reaction?
China has long used both soft and hard tactics to try to persuade Taiwan to accept its “reunification” plan. But under Xi Jinping, this has become a largely ossified issue.
Since Tsai Ing-wen was first elected eight years ago, Beijing has cut off most communications with Taipei, cornered its dwindling number of diplomatic allies, scaled back cross-strait exchanges and sharply increased military pressure.
These tough measures have pushed cross-strait relations to their lowest level in decades and further divided Taiwan. Currently, less than 3% of Taiwanese identify primarily as Chinese, and less than 10% support immediate or eventual reunification.
Taiwan has also deepened ties with Western countries, including the United States, over the past eight years, alarming Beijing.
Officials in China, a one-party state, urged people in Taiwan to make the “right choice,” which is widely seen as a euphemism for not voting for the Democratic Progressive Party.
Taiwanese officials accuse China of trying to interfere in their elections, including social media disinformation campaigns and economic coercion.
China has maintained military pressure on Taiwan ahead of the election, sending fighter jets, drones and warships close to Taiwan’s airspace and waters. Beijing also launched balloons over the island, which Taiwan’s defense ministry said was part of “psychological warfare to affect the morale of our people.”
While few experts expect an imminent invasion by the People’s Liberation Army, Beijing has many ways to express its displeasure, from a show of force through military drills to a further suspension of trade relations with Taiwan or even a blockade.
How far these actions go – and how the United States and its allies respond – will be closely watched by a world already nervous about the conflicts engulfing Europe and the Middle East.
What is the relationship between the United States and Taiwan?
Washington severed formal ties with Taiwan in 1979 after diplomatic recognition of Taipei switched to recognition of Beijing.
Since then, the United States has maintained close unofficial relations with Taiwan and provided Taiwan with the means of self-defense in accordance with the law. But he has long been deliberately vague about whether he would defend Taiwan if China attacked.
The United States has increased support and arms sales to Taiwan under President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden has also repeatedly said the United States will defend Taiwan if China invades, raising questions about whether the United States is abandoning its long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
This angered Beijing, which warned that the Taiwan issue was “the first red line that should not be crossed in Sino-US relations.”
Washington insists it will not support any Taiwanese presidential candidate, and Biden said he explicitly warned Xi Jinping not to interfere in the election during a November summit in San Francisco.
Taiwan’s election comes as the United States attempts to stabilize tense relations with China and prevent competition from escalating into conflict.
Meanwhile, the United States will hold its own presidential election in November, an election that will be closely watched by Taiwan’s new leader and the island’s 24 million residents.