Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te faces big challenges

Taiwan’s incoming president, Lai Ching-te, is set to take office on Monday, facing difficult decisions about how to secure the future of democracy on the island in turbulent times, with wars abroad, divisions in the United States over your country’s global security priorities and political conflicts. divisions in Taiwan over how to preserve the fragile peace with China.

Lai has vowed to guide Taiwan on a safe course through these dangers, a theme he is likely to highlight in his inaugural speech in a public square in Taipei. He has said he will continue to strengthen ties with Washington and other Western partners while resisting threats from Beijing and improving Taiwan’s defenses. However, he could also extend a tentative olive branch to Beijing, welcoming new talks if China’s leader Xi Jinping drops his key precondition: that Taiwan accept that it is part of China.

“We will see an emphasis on continuity on national security, cross-Strait issues and foreign policy,” said Lii Wen, international director of Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party and incoming spokesman for the new leader.

But Lai, 64, faces obstacles as she tries to maintain the course set by her predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen.

Both Ms Tsai and Mr Lai belong to the Democratic Progressive Party, which promotes Taiwan’s separate status from China. Lai, however, has a different personality: more polished in public, less experienced in foreign policy negotiations and with a history of combative comments that can backfire. He must also contend with two emboldened opposition parties that earlier this year won a majority of seats in the legislature, a challenge Tsai did not face in her eight years as president.

When Tsai took office in 2016, Xi’s hardline policies were beginning to galvanize Western opposition. But now Western nations are also affected by wars in Ukraine and the Middle East; Xi has been trying to weaken alliances forged against China; and the impending elections in the United States increase uncertainty about the direction of his foreign policy.

“It’s a much more tense international environment for Lai in 2024 than it was for Tsai in 2016,” said Kharis Templeman, a researcher at the Hoover Institution, a Stanford University think tank that studies Taiwanese politics. “The war in Ukraine, China’s turn toward even greater domestic repression, deteriorating US-China relations, and the past eight years of cross-Strait hostility put Lai in a more difficult position.”

Beijing has already made it clear that it detests Lai more than Tsai. In the coming weeks and months, he could increase military and trade pressure on Taiwan to try to weaken his presidency. Xi’s team of officials has also been aggressively courting the opposition Taiwan Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China and won the most seats in Taiwan’s legislature in this year’s elections.

While Lai is not the reckless firebrand Chinese officials make him out to be, they won’t let go of his 2017 comment that he was a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence,” said Brent Christensen, former director of the American Taiwan Institute. Taiwan who met Mr. Lai when he was a rising politician. (Washington has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and the institute is the de facto embassy.)

“Beijing has a long memory and a deep distrust of him,” Christensen, now an associate professor at Brigham Young University, said of Lai. “They will continue to test it for years to come.”

“Such a show of unwavering and unquestionable determination to safeguard democracy does not detract from the defense of places like Taiwan,” wrote Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s outgoing foreign minister, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. “Indeed, it is a key deterrent against adventurism by Beijing.”

Still, there is debate in Taiwan about the extent to which the United States can help strengthen the island’s military in the coming years while continuing to address the wars in Ukraine and Israel-Gaza, neither of which are expected to end anytime soon.

Taiwan’s backlog of undelivered U.S. weapons and military equipment had grown to nearly $20 billion by the end of April, according to estimates by Eric Gomez and Benjamin Giltner of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. . The additional funds Congress recently approved for Taiwan would be “helpful, but not a silver bullet,” Gomez said in an email.

Lai’s opponents in Taiwan say he risks leading the island into a security dead end: unable to talk to Beijing and yet ill-prepared for any confrontation. Fu Kun-chi, a Nationalist Party member in Taiwan’s legislature who recently visited China, pointed to Ukraine as a cautionary tale.

“Since ancient times, people from a small country or region have not faced the larger country next door to fight,” Fu said in an interview. “Would it really be in the interests of the Americans to have a war across the Taiwan Strait? I really don’t think so, and for the United States to face three battlefields at the same time, is it possible?”

The internal political divisions that could drag down Lai’s administration were on strident display in Taiwan’s legislature last week. Lawmakers from rival parties shoved, yelled and fought over proposed new rules on scrutiny of government officials.

An immediate confrontation with Beijing is unlikely after Lai takes office, government officials and many Taiwan experts have said. Xi’s desire to stabilize relations with Washington and focus on repairing China’s economy has reduced her willingness to risk a crisis over Taiwan.

For now, Xi is likely to impose military, economic and political pressure on Taiwan. In recent months, China has sent coast guard ships near Kinmen, a Taiwan-controlled island near the Chinese mainland, in a move aimed at intimidation without escalating to a conflict that could involve Washington.

Several experts said Lai could begin to contain tensions with Beijing by offering reassuring phrases in his inaugural speech. That could include emphasizing his commitment to the Constitution, under which Taiwan is called the Republic of China. Others close to Lai were skeptical that a major improvement in relations was possible.

Xi “wants to advance unification, he wants progress on that,” said I-Chung Lai, president of the Prospect Foundation, a government-funded think tank in Taipei (he is not related to the president-elect). “But Taiwan simply cannot make any more concessions on that point, and that is the dilemma Lai Ching-te faces in dealing with China.”

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