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How will Taiwan's new leader shape relations with China?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
May 20, 2024

All eyes are on Beijing to see how it will react to Taiwan's newly inaugurated president, William Lai Ching-te, whom China views as a "dangerous separatist."

In this photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan's new President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, center, new Vice President Bi-khim Hsiao, left, and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, right, make a toast during a welcome reception for delegations to the Inauguration ceremony for the new president and vice president, in Taipei, Taiwan
William Lai Ching-te (center) is taking over Taiwan's presidency at a time when relations with China are particularly strainedImage: Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs/AP/picture alliance

William Lai Ching-te, of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was sworn in as president of the self-governing democratic island on Monday.

In his inauguration speech, Lai vowed to defend the island's democracy, and called on China to end its military intimidation.

"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," the new president said.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory. And under the rule of Chinese leader Xi Jinping over the past decade, it has intensified its determination to "reunify" with the island.

China has previously branded Lai as a "dangerous separatist." Hours after his inauguration on Monday, Beijing responded saying that "Taiwan independence is a dead end." 

Beijing 'not happy about Lai'

The results of Taiwan's presidential and parliamentary elections, held in January, came out as bad news to Beijing and would likely keep both sides in a continuous icy relationship, experts told DW.

Before the elections, China had framed the vote as a choice between "war and peace" and said Lai, if elected as president, would be a threat to regional peace.

Despite the warnings, the 64-year-old won around 40% of votes in a tight three-way race with Hou Yu-ih from the main opposition party Kuomintang and Ko Wen-je from the relatively new Taiwan People's Party.

"They're [China] not happy about Lai. It's bad news because the person they didn't want to win won," said Lev Nachman, a political scientist at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.

Supporters of Taiwan's Vice President and president-elect from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te wait for him to speak at the party's headquarters
Lai, whose supporters are seen here on election night, was unable to clinch more than half the voteImage: Annice Lyn/Getty Images

But "there is a silver lining from the PRC's perspective," said Nachman, addressing China by the abbreviation of its official name, the People's Republic of China. He highlighted that, with Lai not getting 50% of the vote, it meant "the majority of people did not vote for the DPP or Lai. That's a big deal."

At the same time, another expert believed the DPP's victory was "within China's expectation," even if there was a wish to see Taiwan's leadership shift to opposition parties that call for more dialogue and exchanges with Beijing.

Chang Wu-ueh, a cross-Strait relations expert at Tamkang University in New Taipei City, said most Chinese officials foresaw this outcome and were preparing for possible responses.

"The pre-election measures of military intimidation and economic pressure are far more likely to be stepped up in the post-election era," Chang said.

Cross-strait relations remain 'icy,' but no drastic change

Taiwan, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) away from China across the Taiwan Strait, is potentially one of the most crucial flash points in the world. In the last eight years of DPP's rule, official dialogue between the two sides has been suspended.

With Lai now taking office, Washington and other Western democracies are closely watching how his China policy may change the already tense cross-strait relations.

"I don't think there's going to be war, but I think the PRC will continue to not pick up the phone," said Nachman, adding that "more icy relations" are expected to drag on and that Lai is very unlikely to change the status quo.

Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, said while Xi Jinping is dissatisfied with Lai becoming president and wants to step up pressure on Taiwan, he "may worry about uncontrollable escalation at a time when the PRC economy is weaker."

A Taiwanese naval soldier on board Tian Dan frigate is seen monitoring Chinese frigate Xuzhou using binoculars
The tension across the Taiwan Strait has grown in recent years under Chinese President Xi JinpingImage: ROC/Zumapress/picture alliance

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated the inaugurated Lai on Monday, saying he looked forward to Washington and Taipei maintaining "peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."

"The partnership between the American people and the Taiwan people, rooted in democratic values, continues to broaden and deepen across trade, economic, cultural, and people-to-people ties," he said.

Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but it has remained Taiwan's most important partner and biggest arms supplier.

Chong told DW that the future of cross-strait relations could depend on trans-Pacific relations between the US and China.

"As long as the US-China relationship is smooth and differences can be managed, Beijing believes that the larger cross-strait US-China relationship far outweighs the smaller cross-strait one," he said.

The tension across the Taiwan Strait has been a constant source of friction between Beijing and Washington.

Real test for Taiwan's next administration

However, experts believe the new parliament will be a significant test of Lai's leadership, given the fact that no political party has secured an absolute majority in the legislative body.

"A president without a legislative majority will have to handle their legislative agenda, which could affect foreign policy," said Chong.

Chinese fighter jets flying through a blue sky with white clouds
The Chinese military regularly carries out air and naval exercises around TaiwanImage: CCTV/AP/picture alliance

In Taiwan's 113-seat parliament, the DPP lost 11 seats in the latest election, yielding dominance to the Kuomintang, which secured 52 seats. The Taiwan People's Party, with only eight seats, is poised to become a crucial minority, with both major parties vying for a coalition.

A similar situation, where the ruling party failed to secure a majority, occurred in 2000 when former President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP was elected.

Chong said, at the time "as Chen got more and more frustrated," he started framing his cross-strait policy with more risk-acceptance, including his "One Country on Each Side" policy that indicated China and Taiwan are two different countries.

Although Lai's character appears different from Chen, Chong emphasized, "no one knows at this point" how the new leader may respond to extreme pressure when standing at the top position.

This article was originally published on January 14, 2024. It was updated after the inauguration of William Lai Ching-te as Taiwan's president on May 20.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru