Lai Ching-te is sworn in as Taiwan’s new president as China looks on with suspicion

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s new president was sworn into office Monday, extending the rule of a party that is viewed with suspicion by China, which claims the self-governing island democracy as its own territory.

Though Lai Ching-te, the former vice president, is expected to largely continue the policies of his predecessor, he is viewed as a “separatist” and a “troublemaker” by Beijing, which has not ruled out using force in unifying with Taiwan and warned during the island’s election in January that voters were choosing between war and peace.

Lai, who is also known by his English name, William, was sworn in at the presidential office building in central Taipei. In a nearby plaza, crowds gathered for a show of marching bands and performers and to hear Lai’s inauguration speech.

A bipartisan delegation of former senior U.S. officials has traveled to Taiwan for the inauguration, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. A senior Biden administration official told reporters last week that was in line with past practice.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai on his inauguration and said the United States looked forward to working with him “to advance our shared interests and values, deepen our longstanding unofficial relationship, and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The status of Taiwan is among the most sensitive issues in relations between the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies. Lai rejects China’s sovereignty claims, saying only the island’s 23 million people can decide its future.

Though the U.S. does not have formal relations with Taiwan, it is the island’s most important international backer and arms supplier, having approved more than $8 billion in military aid last month. U.S. support is key for Taiwan as China pursues diplomatic isolation of the island, which is now recognized by only 12 governments around the world.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said last week that it opposed “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities and interference from external forces” and that Lai had to make a clear choice between peaceful development and confrontation.

Lai, 64, was vice president under President Tsai Ing-wen and has endeavored to present himself as “Tsai 2.0,” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist and assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

But anyone from their Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, is a “deal breaker” for the Chinese government, he said.

“They would not answer any of Tsai Ing-wen’s phone calls over the last eight years, and that’s not likely to change under a William Lai administration,” he said.

China has been stepping up military and other pressure on Taiwan in recent years, particularly since then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August 2022. It sends military warplanes and vessels toward Taiwan almost daily, with many of the planes crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait that had longed served as an unofficial buffer zone.

Though Beijing is likely to express its disapproval after the inauguration Monday, its reaction is unlikely to be anywhere near the scale of its response to Pelosi’s visit, which included live-fire exercises that encircled the island.

That is partly because of recent outreach from former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and a group of legislators from the Kuomintang, the more Beijing-friendly opposition party, who made separate visits to China in past weeks. After those visits, some cross-Strait tourism and trade that had been frozen was reopened.

“I think there’s reason for them to keep things muted for the sake of being able to grow these small but from the KMT’s perspective meaningful exchanges,” Nachman said, using the abbreviation for the Kuomintang.

In the wake of Pelosi’s visit, China’s stepped-up threats have become the new normal, to the point that “it doesn’t really even make news if there is a big incursion into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone,” he said.

On Wednesday, Taiwan’s National Defense Ministry said it had detected 45 Chinese military aircraft around the island, the most in a single day this year.

Taiwan’s policy toward China is unlikely to change under Lai’s administration for several reasons, Nachman said. The first is public opinion: The majority of the public favors maintaining the status quo, neither formally declaring independence nor becoming part of China.

Second, neither the DPP nor any other party won a parliamentary majority in the January election, constraining Lai’s ability to pass legislation at a time when Taiwan is dealing with a number of domestic issues. On Friday, a dispute over parliamentary reforms came to blows in the Taiwanese legislature, with lawmakers shoving and tackling one another.

Finally, “the United States has made it very clear that the DPP is not to cross any red line that would change the status quo,” Nachman said.

China has never publicly laid out a timeline for unification with Taiwan, and though U.S. officials say President Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese military to be prepared to carry out an invasion by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, experts say he would prefer to avoid conflict.

“A war over Taiwan will not come to pass as long as Beijing believes peaceful reunification with the island is still possible,” Zhou Bo, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a retired senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, wrote in Foreign Affairs last week.

“If it suspects that the prospect of peaceful reunification is exhausted forever, then its calculus will change.”

Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies at Nanjing University, also said he thought it was unlikely that there would be a direct military conflict over Taiwan during Lai’s time in office.

“Although Lai Ching-te has a stubborn Taiwan independence proposition, he also knows very well that it is absolutely not a good thing for Taiwan to pursue de jure Taiwan independence and completely challenge the bottom line of mainland China,” he said. 

Short of any unforeseen crisis, Nachman said, the situation in Taiwan is likely to remain static — at least until the U.S. presidential election in November.

“If Donald Trump is re-elected,” he said, “then all predictability and certainty goes out the window and everything we have to say about cross-Strait relations will drastically change.”

Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Taipei and Jennifer Jett and Larissa Gao reported from Hong Kong.

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