TAIPEI—The scene is, on the surface, a familiar one. A populist candidate with unexpected momentum captures nonstop media attention and sees a surge of support online, much of it connected to accounts originating from a rival country. Could he become president?
The candidate is not, however, Donald Trump, and the country where the election is taking place is not the United States, or anywhere nearby. Yet the outcome is of crucial importance to Washington and its foreign policy.
Welcome to Taiwan, where Han Kuo-yu, a once–washed-up former legislator, shocked this island of 23 million last year by beating out the early favorite to become the mayor of Kaohsiung—an office that, in American terms, has the same political currency as that of the governor of Texas or Florida. And with a presidential election coming up in January, a growing chorus of voices on the China-friendly side of Taiwan’s political spectrum is calling for this Trumpian figure to enter the fray. Han has not officially said that he will run, but he has already enchanted much of the Taiwanese electorate, and has a good chance of becoming Taiwan’s next president.
Han has been criticized for making outlandish promises and controversial comments about women and minorities, yet his approach to China and Beijing’s reported efforts to tilt public opinion in his favor have raised the biggest worries. Taiwan holds a precarious position in the world: It is fully autonomous, with its own elected government and military, yet fewer than two dozen countries recognize it diplomatically, granting recognition instead to the Communist government in Beijing. Han being elected Taiwan’s president, many here fear, could destabilize the island’s uneasy relationship with China, erode Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy, and draw into question the loyalty of a strategically located American ally. (The United States has maintained a calculated ambiguity regarding whether it would defend Taiwan.)