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Navigating Treacherous Waters: Taiwan Inaugurates New President Amid Chinese Pressure

Photo from the inauguration of William Lai by European Values Taiwan Office

What is happening?

On Monday, May 20, William Lai (賴清德) and Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴)were sworn in as 16th President and Vice President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Their inauguration followed their victory in the January 14th elections, which secured an unprecedented third term for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

In his inauguration speech, Lai urged Beijing to respect Taiwanese citizens’ choices, recognize his administration as Taiwan’s legal government, and choose “dialogue over confrontation.” Lai suggests measures to pursue peace with his “Four Pillars of Peace Action Plan,” which includes strengthening national defense, ensuring economic security, maintaining stable cross-strait relations, and promoting values-based diplomacy. However, Lai cautions citizens against “harboring any delusions” about China’s intentions. He acknowledges recent threats from China as intimidation tactics and demonstrates a firm resolve to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty.

 

What is the broader picture?

Since the DPP’s landslide victory led by former President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the 2016 presidential elections, diplomatic contact between the two Straits has been suspended, a move initiated by Beijing just a month after Tsai entered office. This was due to Tsai’s refusal to endorse the 1992 Consensus as the political basis for cross-strait relations, despite her affirmation to maintain the status quo.  The 1992 Consensus, a term coined several years after the titular year, refers to a series of meetings in which both sides of the straits discussed the concept of “one China.” Beijing’s present stance maintains that “one China” means that the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate authority representing both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, Taipei often describes it as “One China, Respective Interpretations.”

Tsai’s refusal aligns with her party’s stance on cross-strait relations, which advocates Taiwan’s sovereignty. As a result, China suspended independent travel to Taiwan in 2019, and following Tsai’s reelection in 2020, halted both group travel to Taiwan and the enrollment of Chinese students in Taiwanese universities. These measures are unlikely to change despite Lai’s proposal in his inaugural speech on Monday, as he has not endorsed the 1992 consesus. Instead, Lai emphasized the reality of the Republic of China’s existence, which has drawn criticism from both Taiwan’s opposition party members and Beijing. During a forum on cross-strait relations, KMT member and former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) stated that Lai’s unwillingness to recognize the one-China policy would bring risks and continue the lack of cross-strait communication. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) responded by describing Lai’s speech as a downright “confession of Taiwan independence” while adding that China “must counteract and punish” all efforts of independence.

 

Why does it matter?

Lai’s inaugural speech outlined his willingness to engage in dialogue with China while maintaining the status quo, a sentiment echoed by his party, the DPP, and his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen. However, given China’s lack of reciprocal effort, tensions will likely rise during Lai’s term, considering the critical nature of the next few years. Many reports point towards China being ready or willing to invade Taiwan by 2027.

Furthermore, Lai will face numerous domestic challenges as well. Although his party won the presidential race this year, the DPP failed to secure a majority in the legislative election, resulting in the Legislative Yuan lacking a majority party. Already a mere day after Lai’s inauguration protests erupted in the streets of Taipei to protest a bill by the Legislative Yuan.

On a perhaps more hopeful note, Lai’s “Four Pillars of Peace Action Plan” emphasizes values-based diplomacy, which vows to stand alongside like-minded democratic countries. These statements point to opportunities to uphold the upward trajectory in Taiwan-Europe relations. The EU and its member states can deepen their engagements with Taiwan in terms of economics and by exchanging best practices and implementing joint projects to protect democratic institutions and processes, a shared mission underscored by the normative alignment between Taipei and Brussels. In the past, Lai has already expressed great interest in further cooperation with the European Union, and his speech on Monday implies the same commitment.