Taiwan’s New President, Lai Ching-te, Seeks Cooperation Amid Tensions with China

Historic Inauguration Marks New Era for Taiwan's Democracy

by Faruk Imamovic
Taiwan’s New President, Lai Ching-te, Seeks Cooperation Amid Tensions with China
© Getty Images/Annabelle Chih

On Monday, Lai Ching-te was sworn in as Taiwan’s president, ushering in a historic third consecutive term for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This milestone is significant not only for the DPP, which has steadfastly advocated for Taiwan’s democracy in the face of mounting threats from authoritarian China, but also for Taiwan's continuing commitment to its democratic values.

Lai, 64, a former doctor and vice president, was inaugurated alongside Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s former top envoy to the United States. Their leadership is openly opposed by Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory despite never having governed it. China has made clear its intention to seize the island by force if necessary.

A Message of Peace and Sovereignty

In his 30-minute inaugural address, President Lai emphasized Taiwan’s role as a key player in the global democratic community. He described the island as an "important link" in a "global chain of democracies" and reiterated his commitment to defending Taiwan's sovereignty. “The future of the Republic of China Taiwan will be decided by its 23 million people. The future we decide is not just the future of our nation, but the future of the world,” Lai proclaimed, using Taiwan's official name.

Lai's ascension follows the tenure of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president, who enhanced the island’s international profile during her eight years in office. Tsai was unable to run again due to term limits. Lai won the January election, prevailing over candidates from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party and the Taiwan People’s Party. The election centered on issues of daily life and the complex relationship with China, which has grown more assertive under President Xi Jinping.

Despite Beijing’s warnings that re-electing the DPP could heighten the risk of conflict, Taiwanese voters supported the DPP’s stance on strengthening defenses against China and deepening ties with other democracies.

In his address, Lai called on China “to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan, share with Taiwan the global responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as the greater region, and ensure the world is free from the fear of war.”

Taiwan Inaugurates New President Lai Ching-te
Taiwan Inaugurates New President Lai Ching-te© Getty Images/Annabelle Chih

Navigating Complex Relations with China

Lai, a soft-spoken political veteran, has a history rooted in the more radical wing of the DPP. He was once an open advocate for Taiwan independence, a position that remains a red line for Beijing. While his stance has moderated over the years, Lai remains a contentious figure in Chinese politics, particularly due to his past comments labeling himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence.”

Now, Lai asserts that Taiwan is already an independent sovereign country with “no plan or need” to declare formal independence, echoing the nuanced position held by his predecessor Tsai. This approach aims to maintain the status quo while avoiding unnecessary provocation.

Lai’s inauguration was attended by leaders from countries with which Taiwan maintains formal diplomatic ties, former American officials, and international lawmakers, underscoring Taiwan's global support. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai and praised Taiwan's robust democratic system. “We look forward to working with President Lai and across Taiwan’s political spectrum to advance our shared interests and values, deepen our longstanding unofficial relationship, and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Blinken stated.

Tensions and Prospects for Cooperation

Lai's presidency begins during a particularly tense period in Taiwan-China relations. In recent years, China has increased diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on Taiwan, partly in response to Taiwan’s strengthening informal ties with the United States.

In his inaugural speech, Lai expressed hope that China would “face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence, respect the choices of the people of Taiwan,” and engage in cooperation with Taiwan’s democratically elected government. He proposed resuming tourism and enrolling Chinese students in Taiwanese institutions as steps toward peace and mutual prosperity.

However, Lai also cautioned against harboring illusions. He warned that as long as China refuses to renounce the use of force, Taiwan must remain vigilant. “Even if we accept the entirety of China’s position and give up our sovereignty, China’s ambition to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear,” he stated.

China has sought to portray Lai as a provocateur, framing Taiwan's elections as a choice between “peace and war.” A spokesperson for China’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated this sentiment, urging Taiwan’s new leader to make a clear choice between peaceful development and confrontation.

President Xi Jinping has made “reunification” with Taiwan a key objective of his vision for China’s rejuvenation. However, under his rule, Taiwan's public opinion has shifted away from China, with less than 10% supporting unification and fewer than 3% identifying primarily as Chinese. Most Taiwanese prefer to maintain the current status quo, showing no desire to be ruled by Beijing.

Challenges Ahead in Parliament

Lai faces significant challenges in implementing his agenda, especially in a parliament where his party does not hold a majority. In the January election, the DPP secured only 51 out of 113 seats, complicating Lai’s legislative efforts.

This lack of a majority was evident in a recent parliamentary session that descended into chaos over contentious reform bills. Lawmakers engaged in physical altercations, demonstrating the intense political divisions Lai must navigate.

In his address, Lai acknowledged the difficulties ahead. “A lack of absolute majority means that the ruling and opposition parties are now all able to share their ideas, and that we will be undertaking the nation’s challenges as one,” he said. He called for cooperation to ensure the nation’s stability and progress.