New Taiwanese President’s Speech: Seeking Harmony But Emphasizing Differences Towards Beijing

Taiwan President Lai Ching-te Inauguration Ceremony

President Lai Ching-te delivers a speech that advocates harmony while simultaneously acknowledging differences. Sworn in as Taiwan’s new President on Monday, he uses the opportunity to express his desire to enhance cross-Strait relations. However, Lai also utilizes this moment to emphasize the divide between his island’s government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), utilizing the term “democracy” 31 times throughout his address.

“Mutual benefits and prosperous coexistence would be common goals,” Lai, 64, told the gathering participants, including 51 international delegations and eight heads of state, including representatives from the U.S, U.K., Australia, Japan, and Canada. “I trust China will eventually confront the reality of [Taiwan’s] existence.”

However, Beijing is adamant in its efforts to undermine Taiwan. At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Taiwan gained political autonomy after spending half a century as a Japanese colony until 1945. Despite the CCP never having governed the 23 million-people island, Chinese President Xi Jinping views its incorporation into China as a “historical inevitability” and has repeatedly threatened to use force to achieve this goal.

Under the two terms of the outgoing Tsai Ing-wen, who, like Lai, is affiliated with the China-skeptical Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), China has successfully persuaded nine of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to sever ties. Just two days following Tsai’s election victory in January, China also convinced the tiny nation of Nauru to abandon Taipei in favor of Beijing, leaving Taiwan with only 12 remaining allies.

In light of these events, Lai’s calls for improved relations appear unlikely to succeed. Ahead of Lai’s inauguration, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office likened the compatibility of “Taiwan independence and peace in the strait” to that of “water and fire,” referring to him as a “troublemaker” and “dangerous separatist.”

Despite this, Lai recognizes the importance of optics in maintaining stability, acknowledging that outward hostility benefits no one. Beijing severed formal communication with Taiwan following Tsai’s first election victory in 2016. Lai calls for a resumption of bilateral reciprocal sightseeing, tourism, and educational exchanges with China, “so that we can work together in the pursuit of peace and co-prosperity.” However, Lai emphatically conditions such reengagement on “dignity and equivalence,” terms which appear highly restrictive for a territory that Xi considers his own. During his inauguration speech, Lai prioritizes striking the right tone and avoiding any language that could be interpreted as confrontational.

“With the continuation of the DPP, top level contact with Beijing is not likely to occur for the foreseeable future,” says Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. “And that’s a problem.”

This is particularly concerning for the numerous Taiwanese citizens with familial or business connections in China who desire a return to less hostile times. After all, Lai won only 40.1% of the vote in January’s election, while the opposition Nationalists (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) garnered 33.5% and 26.5%, respectively, campaigning on platforms that included repairing ties with Beijing. This suggests that a majority of Taiwan voters disagree with the DPP’s China-skeptic approach yet remain undecided on the most suitable China-friendly alternative.

China will likely exploit this message, emphasizing that Lai lacks the parliamentary majority necessary to implement his agenda. Domestic issues such as sluggish growth, stagnant wages, and rising prices also loom large. Last week, chaotic scenes erupted in parliament as lawmakers engaged in a violent confrontation over proposed legislation that would grant the opposition greater oversight authority over the government.

“The Lai administration’s ability to secure a majority on specific issues will depend on their success in identifying divisions within the TPP or KMT and exploiting them,” says Chong Ja Ian, an expert on China’s diplomacy and professor at the National University of Singapore. “So I guess a lot of horse trading will be involved.”

While many Taiwanese yearn for increased security, they also fear the prospect of soft colonization by Beijing. In 2014, a trade pact with China that opponents believed would leave Taiwan vulnerable to political pressure prompted hundreds of students to occupy parliament in what became known as the Sunflower Movement. Since then, the sense of Taiwanese identity has only intensified. Today, 78% of islanders identify as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese or some hybrid.

Ultimately, most Taiwanese simply want to live their lives without fear of aggression from Beijing. Chinese warplanes and naval vessels maintain a near-constant, threatening presence around the island, with fighter jets and drones activity increasing in the lead-up to Lai’s inauguration. Deteriorating cross-Strait relations have already prompted Tsai to increase mandatory military service for males from four months to one year. In his inauguration speech, Lai states that his administration will focus on next-generation semiconductors and communications technology to ensure Taiwan’s critical role in global supply chains.

“So long as China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, all of us should accept… China’s threats to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear,” he said.

To counter these threats, relations with the U.S have taken on unprecedented importance. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulates Lai and “the Taiwan people for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust and resilient democratic system,” and President Joe Biden has vowed to defend the island on four separate occasions. However, Taiwan’s status