Lai Ching-te aims to strengthen Taiwan but maintain the status quo | World News - Hindustan Times

Lai Ching-te aims to strengthen Taiwan but maintain the status quo

The Economist
May 27, 2024 08:00 AM IST

It’s already proving tough

THOUSANDS GATHERED in front of Taipei’s presidential office on May 20th to celebrate the inauguration of William Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s fifth democratically elected president. Among them were 400 supporters from his hometown, Wanli. “Everyone is very proud,” said one of them, Chen Kuo-lung. In the past, the small fishing community on Taiwan’s north coast was known only for its tasty crabs. “Now we’ve also produced a president,” boasted Mr Chen, adding that China has suppressed Taiwan to make it momowuwen, “obscure and unknown”, as Wanli used to be. He hopes Mr Lai can do for Taiwan’s profile globally what he has done for Wanli’s at home.

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President Lai Ching-te makes a speech during his visit to a military camp in Taoyuan, Taiwan May 23, 2024. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo(REUTERS) PREMIUM
FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President Lai Ching-te makes a speech during his visit to a military camp in Taoyuan, Taiwan May 23, 2024. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo(REUTERS)

Indeed, Mr Lai promised during his campaign to follow his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, in trying to make the country “the world’s Taiwan, rather than China’s Taiwan”. But Ms Tsai’s calm insistence on affirming Taiwan’s sovereignty infuriated China’s Communist Party. Over the past eight years, China has cut off engagement with Taiwan’s government, blocked Chinese tourism to Taiwan, stepped up military drills around the island, banned many imports from Taiwan and poached almost half of its diplomatic allies so that only 12 governments still recognise Taiwan’s.

Chinese officials have called Mr Lai a troublemaking separatist. More accurately, he is a pragmatic moderate, who hopes to strengthen Taiwan without provoking China. Taiwan, he said in his inaugural speech, is a democratic “pilot for peace”, adding that his government would maintain the status quo. He did not call for any constitutional change or referendum on Taiwan’s independence, but repeated a formula coined by Ms Tsai, that the Republic of China (ie, Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China are “not subordinate to one another”. He called on China to stop intimidating Taiwan and re-engage with it.

That stance reflects Taiwanese public opinion. Polls there show 80% support for cross-strait exchanges on the principle of reciprocity. And a large majority favour keeping Taiwan’s status quo for now or for ever. At the inauguration, Chang Kuan-ying, a 60-year-old dentist, who was at high school with Mr Lai, said he was proud of him but hoped Taiwan could seek peaceful dialogue with China “so that cross-strait tensions will not continue”. Mr Chang’s worries are shared by many: a recent study by National Taiwan University found that more than half of Taiwan’s people believe war could break out in the next five years.

Mr Lai also called for Taiwan’s people to have “no delusions” about China’s intention of annexing the island. Taiwan will bolster its defences and ties with other democratic countries, he said. Its strategy to achieve this includes becoming a key supplier of sensitive technologies such as AI, drones, satellites and military equipment, in addition to the advanced chipmaking industry that Taiwan already dominates. “Let Taiwan become the democratic world’s MVP [most valuable player],” he said.

China was not impressed. Its foreign minister, Wang Yi, condemned Mr Lai, saying “separatists” like him will be “nailed to a pillar of historical shame”. And on May 23rd China announced two days of military exercises near Taiwan. It has also focused on amplifying Mr Lai’s domestic challenges. Chen Binhua, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said that Mr Lai’s views made him a “traitor to mainstream opinion within the island”. Mr Lai was elected with only 40% popular support, and his party lost the parliamentary majority it enjoyed throughout Ms Tsai’s tenure. In April Taiwan’s main opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, sent a legislative delegation to China to meet senior officials. Since then it has been calling for Taiwan’s national security laws to be revised. Senior officials and Taiwanese civil society are worried.

In his speech Mr Lai called for political parties to co-operate in the national interest, while hinting at the danger of Taiwan’s pro-unification parties working with China to subvert democracy: “All our political parties ought to oppose annexation and protect sovereignty.” On May 17th six parliamentarians ended up in hospital after a brawl in the chamber over the opposition parties’ attempts to push through a reform package that would expand parliament’s powers. On May 21st thousands of protesters gathered outside Taiwan’s parliament to demonstrate against the opposition parties. Mr Lai has hardly begun his new job and already the pressure is on.

Read more from Banyan, our columnist on Asia: Narendra Modi ramps up the Muslim-baiting (May 16th) In South-East Asia, the war in Gaza is roiling emotions (May 9th) Meet the maharajas of the world’s biggest democracy (May 2nd)

Also: How the Banyan column got its name

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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