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Taiwanese VP and Presidential Contender Visits the U.S.

What is going on?

William Lai (賴清德), Taiwan’s vice president and Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate for the 2024 presidential elections, visited New York during a stopover en route to Paraguay, where he attended Santiago Peña swearing-in ceremony. The visit was relatively low-profile – Lai met with representatives of the Taiwanese-American community and delivered a luncheon speech. During the return leg of the journey, he will also visit San Francisco, where he is due to meet with Laura Rosenberger, chair of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a U.S. government-run non-profit that carries out Washington’s unofficial relations with Taiwan. Even though Taipei and Washington both call transfers by Taiwanese officials’ routine, Lai’s presence in the U.S. attracted the ire of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) authorities.


What is the broader picture?

Amid mounting tensions in U.S.-China and Taiwan-China relations, Beijing strongly opposes interactions between U.S. and Taiwanese officials, as it threatens to annex the island forcibly. Over the past three years, China intensified its gray zone activities around Taiwan. High-profile interactions between Taiwan and the U.S. serve as an excuse for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to launch military exercises in the vicinity of the island, which has been described as the deployment of psychological warfare against Taiwan. Coinciding with Lai’s stopover in the U.S., China’s Maritime Safety Administration reported that military exercises would take place off the coast of the eastern city of Ningbo – around 500km to the north of Taipei – for a period of three days. This is reminiscent of the simulated blockade which China staged in April as an angry response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) meeting U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a California stopover following her travel to Central America. At the same time, the PLA’s response during Lai’s transit was considerably more muted than in August 2022, when Beijing launched live-fire exercises to condemn the Taiwan visit by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


Why does it matter?

With almost five months left until the elections, William Lai currently leads as a presidential contender in public opinion polls. While Lai previously called himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence,” he is currently seeking to convince not only voters at home but also the relevant stakeholders in Washington that he would be a steady pair of hands capable of maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, the low profile of the visit might be read as an effort on behalf of Lai to demonstrate to Washington that he would steer clear of drastic changes in Taiwan’s status if elected. The Chinese foreign ministry condemned the U.S. for allowing Lai to transfer through the country, asserting that “Lai Ching-te clings stubbornly to the separatist position for Taiwan independence. He is a troublemaker through and through.” His electoral success may thus perpetuate the impasse in Taiwan-China relations, which commenced in 2016 when Tsai Ing-wen, also of the Democratic Progressive Party, became the island nation’s president.