It’s getting hard to keep track of all the international news this week, what with so much of the world being on fire and all, but there was a potentially significant development in Taiwan over the past 24 hours. The disputed island nation held their scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections and the early returns indicate that change is in the air. Candidates from the nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which supports independence from mainland China, appear to be carrying the day. (CNN)

Votes are in for a landmark election that’s expected to result in Taiwan’s first female president and could unsettle relations with giant neighbor China.

Voters lined up Saturday at polling stations, and when they closed, surveys suggested that Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), would win the presidential vote by a significant margin after eight years under the government of the pro-China Kuomintang or Nationalist party.

The ruling party is also in danger of losing control of the legislature for the first time in parliamentary elections, with a record 556 candidates in the race for 113 seats.

This situation had largely calmed down for a while recently (though not entirely) under outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, who had forged some closer ties with Beijing. Having Tsai Ing-wen in power could rip some old wounds open again. It’s not as if we need yet another headache on our hands, but the United States is somewhat irrevocably tangled up in Taiwan’s affairs. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not actually obligated to go to war on their behalf if China attacks them, but under a standing 1979 agreement we do have to provide them with defensive arms. For their part, China has well over 1,500 ballistic and cruise missiles pointed at Taiwan in addition to having a David versus Goliath advantage in soldiers, aircraft and naval forces.

Are we going to be more aggressively pro-Taiwan as part of Barack Obama’s Pacific pivot? It likely won’t put China off from their goals, even if they actually still feared us militarily. (Spoiler alert: that’s pretty unlikely these days.) The Chinese also have a history of flying off the handle and threatening all sorts of retribution if anyone else – specifically America – appears to be poking their nose into the Taiwan question. They previously threatened direct economic sanctions against American companies over a relatively low key arms deal. It would be nice if it stopped at simple trade deal threats, but there’s no telling what China will do on any given day. Roughly one year ago they threatened to arm Hawaiians who want to return the islands to being an independent kingdom over US support of Taiwan.

This situation has been under the magnifying glass for many years now. I’ll point you back to one earlier analysis from David Lampton, who was director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Rather than arguing about arms deals, he looked at the ego of China and why they feel it imperative to retain control of Taiwan.

In effect, the prevention of Taiwan going independent is absolutely critical to the legitimacy of the Chinese communist regime. Chinese leaders believe that, if they were to let Taiwan go independent and not respond, they would probably be overthrown by their own nationalistic people. Therefore, I think they would be willing to engage in what we might call “self-defeating military adventures” in order to prevent that result, even if they knew they were going to lose.

So in my view, the key problem for the United States is how to deter the PRC from using force against Taiwan. We have to be very clear about that, because I think the United States would intervene if force were used under most circumstances I can imagine. But on the other hand, we have to deter Taiwan from engaging in such risky behavior that they precipitate an attack that will be destabilizing to Asia, destroy the Taiwan economy and drag the United States into a regional conflict.

China places a huge value on saving face. One thing they definitely don’t want to see is a situation where Taiwan essentially turns into the equivalent of Cuba for the United States. They don’t need a hostile, or even independent and argumentative nation right off their coast. It would be sign of weakness which their leaders are unlikely to tolerate. The real question now is just how reform minded the new Taiwanese president will be.

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