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Taiwan’s incoming president faces tough balancing act, analysts say

Taiwan's new president to face growing global uncertainties
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Taiwan's new president to face growing global uncertainties

When Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te is sworn into office on May 20, he will be facing what is perhaps the toughest first term of any leader the democratically ruled island of 23 million has ever elected since 1996.

Analysts say that Lai will not only need to carefully manage relations with China but also need to work to maintain steady ties with Washington during an election year.

Branded a secessionist by Beijing, China has beefed up the scale and frequency of military activities and coast guard patrols near Taiwan since Lai was elected in January. Beijing has also opened new flight routes near Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu in April, which some analysts view as an attempt to redefine the longstanding status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

Such efforts are widely seen as part of China’s pressure campaign towards Taiwan. But unlike the large-scale military exercises the Chinese military held around the island in 2022 and 2023, Beijing’s recent actions are “quieter” by comparison, said Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group.

China is trying “to present itself as seeking peaceful unification and doesn’t want to be seen as a provocateur,” Hsiao said.

China views Taiwan as part of its territory and has repeatedly vowed to reunite with the island, by force if necessary.

Lai’s four-year presidency falls within the time fame U.S. military and intelligence officials have publicly said Chinese leader Xi Jinping has set for the Chinese military to have an invasion plan in place by 2027. The date also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.

Some Taiwanese experts say while the Lai administration should be aware of the significance of 2027, they shouldn’t arrange Taiwan’s preparation for a potential Chinese invasion around this timeframe.

“2027 shouldn’t be viewed as the definitive year that China will invade Taiwan, because Beijing’s calculation involves a lot of factors, including the dynamics across the Taiwan Strait,” said Li Da-Jung, director of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.

In his view, the Lai administration should prioritize efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s capabilities to defend itself and deter China from invading the island.

Boosting exchanges

Since Taiwan’s pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 2016, China has cut off all official communication and increased the level of pressure against Taiwan. Beijing has also suggested that it’s open to increasing exchange with Taipei by lifting some travel restrictions and hosting several delegations from Taiwan’s China-friendly opposition party Kuomintang.

Increasing exchanges with China-friendly actors in Taiwan “will be a major focus in the near term for China,” Hsiao said.

For his part, Lai has said he is committed to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and that he is willing to engage with Beijing on the basis of dignity and parity.

In a pre-recorded speech this week at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit 2024, he said, "I will not rule out dialogue with China on the principles of mutual respect, mutual benefits, and dignity, with no preconditions.”

China’s offer to reopen cross-strait exchanges, especially resuming group tourism between China and Taiwan, is both an opportunity and a challenge for Taiwan’s new government.

“The Lai administration could point to the return of group tourism as an early success in their term and this would be a useful way of signaling to international partners that they are responsibly handling their relationship with Beijing,” Hsiao said.

However, she added that the Lai administration should also be mindful of the potential costs of accepting offers from Beijing.

“A return to group tourism could create some dependencies on China that Beijing could leverage and exploit next time they are unhappy with the relationship,” Hsiao told VOA.

For now, she thinks the Chinese government will try to “lean on” the United States and opposition parties in Taiwan to keep the new Taiwanese government “on a more moderate course.”

Lai’s inauguration speech will be “a key indicator” of his administration’s approach to China. “How he talks about and defines cross-strait relationships will be significant,” Hsiao told VOA. Washington announced this week that they will send an unofficial delegation – which includes two former senior U.S. officials and a scholar – to attend the inauguration.

Continuity in U.S.-Taiwan relations

While tensions between China and Taiwan will likely remain high, some experts say relations between the United States and Taiwan will largely remain unchanged under the new Taiwanese government, since bilateral ties have reached a new level of stability during Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure.

“So much of what we are looking forward to in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, whether [it] is meaningful bilateral trade agreement or more robust defensive military sales, are all things that rely on the groundwork laid out by Tsai and previous administrations in Taiwan,” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

However, despite the predictability of the new Taiwanese government’s policy direction toward the U.S., Nachman said the U.S. Presidential election in November, which will likely be a rematch between current President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, could add uncertainties to relations between Taipei and Washington.

“What Biden represents is a level of predictability and certainty and that’s important in this part of the world when both sides of the Taiwan Strait are operating off imperfect information about what the other side is going to do,” he told VOA in a video interview.

But if Trump wins the election in November, Nachman said Taiwan’s new administration should be prepared for some uncertainties. A potential Trump presidency “brings uncertainty, imperfect information, and a level of no pragmatism from the U.S. that would be the biggest challenge for Taiwan and the entire [Indo-Pacific] region to navigate,” he added.

Tamkang University’s Li said the Lai administration should start engaging with Trump’s advisors as soon as possible.

“Taiwan’s incoming government should maintain close communication with Trump’s advisors and highlight the importance of Taiwan during bilateral conversations,” he told VOA.

Efforts to diversify Taiwan’s foreign relations

While relations with China and the U.S. dominate Taiwan’s foreign policy agenda, the island has increased its diplomatic engagements with European countries during Tsai’s second term.

“The EU and Taiwan have been thinking about how they can strengthen cooperation in certain areas while being mindful of potential limitations [over the last four years,]” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an expert on EU-Taiwan relations at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, told VOA in a video interview.

Since 2020, Taiwan has deepened its economic engagement with some Central and Eastern European countries. In 2021, Taiwan opened a trade office in Lithuania under the name “Taiwan” instead of the island’s official name, the Republic of China. Since then, it has signed several cooperation agreements related to bilateral tech collaboration with countries like Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

Additionally, Taiwan has hosted several high-level parliamentary delegations from Lithuania and the Czech Republic in recent years. Ferenczy and Nachman both said that while these visits have helped to elevate mutual understanding and interests between Taiwan and some European countries, the new government under Lai should focus on adding substance to these newly elevated ties.

The Lai administration “needs to approach these newfound allies with a level of pragmatism [by] pursuing meaningful alliances in trade or [increase] exchanges,” Nachman told VOA.