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Lai Ching-te becomes Taiwan president amid growing external and domestic challenges


Taiwan's former President Tsai Ing-wen and new President Lai Ching-te wave to people during the inauguration ceremony outside the Presidential office building in Taipei, Taiwan May 20, 2024.
Taiwan's former President Tsai Ing-wen and new President Lai Ching-te wave to people during the inauguration ceremony outside the Presidential office building in Taipei, Taiwan May 20, 2024.

Lai Ching-te was sworn in as Taiwan’s new president Monday, kicking off an unprecedented third consecutive term for the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has consistently highlighted the strength of the island’s democracy over the last eight years.

In his inauguration speech on Monday, Lai attributed Taiwan’s third transition of power since 1996 to the Taiwanese people and described the island as “the MVP of the democratic world.”

“As we move forward, my administration will continue using Taiwan’s democratic vitality as a force for good, to promote national development and deepen international cooperation,” he said in front of foreign dignitaries and international media outlets.

To signal his goodwill toward Beijing, he called on the Chinese government to cease political and military intimidation against Taiwan and work with Taipei to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

“I hope that China will face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence, respect the choice of the people of Taiwan, and in good faith, choose dialogue over confrontation, exchange over containment, and under the principles of parity and dignity, engage in cooperation with the legal government chosen by Taiwan’s people,” Lai said.

Lai highlighted group tourism and enrollment of degree students as two areas in which Taipei and Beijing could try to resume bilateral exchanges. “Let us together pursue peace and mutual prosperity,” he said.

While he reiterated the new administration’s willingness to cooperate with China, Lai also highlighted the necessity for Taiwan to enhance its defense capabilities in the face of growing military pressure imposed by Beijing.

“In face of the many threats and attempts of infiltration from China, we must demonstrate our resolution to defend our nation, and we must also raise our defense awareness and strengthen our legal framework for national security,” he said, adding that China’s ambition to invade Taiwan won’t simply disappear.

He vowed to strengthen Taiwan’s national defense, improve its economic security, maintain a stable and principled cross-strait relationship, and work with like-minded countries to prevent war by demonstrating “the strength of deterrence.”

Some analysts say Lai touched on all the important issues that will affect Taiwan’s relations with China during his inauguration address.

“He acknowledged the need for cross-strait cooperation and even mentioned concrete things like tourism and allowing students back and forth,” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

“He struck all the notes by focusing on Taiwan’s need to defend itself from China while highlighting the need for Taipei to find ways to cooperate with Beijing,” he told VOA by phone.

Despite Lai’s seemingly balanced message to Beijing, some experts say China is unlikely to adjust its approach towards Taiwan. “Beijing will probably be quite tough on Taiwan at the outset because there’s no reason for them to let up,” Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, told VOA by phone.

In his view, China believes they have an advantage over Taiwan so they will continue to “press that advantage.”

During a regular press conference on May 15, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait relations, said Taiwan’s new leader needs to decide whether he chooses the path of “peaceful development” or the path of “provocation and confrontation.”

“We are determined to promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and advance the cause of reunification of the motherland,” said Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Chen Binhua.

On Monday, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said six Chinese military aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait and entered Taiwan’s northern and southwestern air defense identification zone between May 19 and May 20.

China views Taiwan as part of its territory and has repeatedly vowed to reunite with Taiwan through force if necessary. In recent months, Beijing has increased the frequency of military aircraft deployment and coast guard patrols near Taiwan.

Deepen ties with democratic countries

Apart from laying out his administration’s approach to handling cross-strait relations, Lai vowed to deepen international cooperation through “Taiwan’s democratic vitality,” focusing on combating disinformation, strengthening democratic resilience, and addressing challenges.

“As for international affairs, we will continue working with other democratic nations to form a democratic community and share our experiences across a range of fields,” he said.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai on his inauguration and reiterated Washington’s desire to work with his administration and other political parties in Taiwan to advance the shared interests and values between Taiwan and the United States and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Since Lai has appointed several seasoned politicians from the previous administration to key cabinet positions handling foreign policy and national security, some analysts say the new Taiwanese government will continue to focus on deepening ties with like-minded democracies around the world.

“Lai will uphold Tsai’s foreign policy agenda by establishing more connections with the Western world,” Chen Yuhua, an assistant professor in global studies at Akita International University, told VOA in a video interview.

Domestic challenges

While Lai faces a tough balancing act externally, he is also expected to experience growing challenges posed by Taiwan’s two opposition parties, the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party.

Friday, fights broke out between lawmakers from Lai’s DPP and KMT as the two opposition parties tried to pass a bill that would give the parliament more power to scrutinize the government, including criminalizing officials viewed as making false statements to the parliament.

On Monday, Lai urged all three parties to “believe in cooperation” and “observe procedural justice” in the parliament. “The majority should respect the minority, while the minority accepts majority rule. Only then can we avoid conflict and maintain a stable and harmonious society,” he said.

As Lai promised to prioritize pressing domestic issues such as low wages for young people and unaffordably high housing prices, some experts told VOA that his administration should try to ensure its policies are tailored to Taiwanese people’s needs.

“Lai should focus on strengthening connection with civil society and rebuild people’s trust in the ruling party,” said Chen Fang-yu, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan.

“If he can successfully convince Taiwanese people to accept his policies, I think it’ll be difficult for the opposition parties to oppose policies put forward by his administration,” he told VOA.