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Global tensions and a hostile neighbor await Taiwan’s new leader

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Taipei: Taiwan’s president, Lai Ching-te, was sworn into office Monday, vowing to keep the island democracy safe in the face of Chinese pressure and wars raging abroad that have fed uncertainty over Western staying power.

In his inaugural address, Lai was by turns conciliatory and unyielding on how the island should preserve its brittle peace with China, which claims Taiwan as its territory. He said he hoped to hold talks with Beijing. But he set out broad conditions that China’s leaders were unlikely to accept and vowed that Taiwan would keep building ties with fellow democracies as it fortified against China’s military buildup.

Taiwan must not “harbor any delusions,” Lai said.

“Even if we were to accept China’s proposals in their entirety and forsake sovereignty, China’s attempts to swallow up Taiwan would not disappear,” he said. “In the face of the many threats and attempts of infiltration from China, we must demonstrate our resolution to defend our nation.”

The Chinese government’s office for Taiwanese affairs quickly denounced Lai’s speech, accusing him of “inciting antagonism and confrontation across the strait.”

Many Taiwanese people want stable relations with Beijing, and want Lai’s government to focus on fixing Taiwan’s economic and social ills. But even with strong bipartisan support from Washington, Taiwan faces a more perilous world, and a more powerful China, than when Lai’s predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, took office in 2016.

Back then, the hard-line policies of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, were starting to galvanize Western opposition. Now Western nations are also weighed down by wars in Ukraine and the Middle East; Xi has been seeking to weaken US-led alliances forged against China; and the United States’ looming elections are adding to uncertainty about the direction of its foreign policy.

“It’s a much more fraught international environment for Lai in 2024 than Tsai in 2016,” said Kharis Templeman, a research fellow who studies Taiwanese politics at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University. “The war in Ukraine, China’s turn toward even greater domestic repression, the deterioration in US-China relations, and the last eight years of cross-strait hostility put Lai in a more difficult position.”

Long before Lai took office, Beijing made plain that it dislikes him even more than it did Tsai. Chinese officials often cite a remark he made in 2017 in which he called himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.” Lai’s supporters say he meant Taiwan should exercise self-rule without seeking formal independence. That qualification does not mollify China, and it again called him a “worker for Taiwanese independence” on Monday.

In his speech, Lai called for dialogue with leaders in Beijing — based on accepting Taiwan as a sovereign equal, still officially called the Republic of China. He also urged both sides to agree on reviving tourism between them, and allowing Chinese students to attend Taiwanese universities.

But Xi was unlikely to accept Lai’s conditions for talks, said Amanda Hsiao, the senior analyst for China with the International Crisis Group, which seeks to defuse conflicts. China froze high-level contacts with Taiwan after Tsai took office in 2016, accusing her of failing to endorse a “consensus” that Taiwan and the mainland are part of one China, Beijing’s condition for talks.

“The two sides are far away from a basis for dialogue that both sides can accept,” Hsiao said. “The utility of these formulations lies in their very ambiguity, but Lai seems to be saying that without more gestures of sincerity from Beijing, the cost of accepting such ambiguity is too high.”

In the coming weeks and months, China may step up military and trade pressure on Taiwan to try to weaken Lai’s presidency. It has maintained a steady presence of fighter jets near the island and more recently has sent coast guard ships near Kinmen, a Taiwanese-controlled island near the Chinese mainland, moves aimed at intimidating while stopping short of a conflict that could draw in Washington.

But Xi’s desire to stabilize relations with Washington and focus on repairing China’s economy has reduced his willingness to risk a crisis. And Beijing is also likely to wait for the result of the US presidential election this year before considering big steps on Taiwan.

“Lai’s speech isn’t going to launch a PRC amphibious invasion of Taiwan, but it’s not going to change Xi Jinping’s conviction that Lai is a dangerous ‘worker for independence’,” Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said of the likely reaction from the People’s Republic of China.

US support remains vital for Taiwan’s ability to counter China’s military pressure. Lai used his speech to promote Taiwan’s global significance — as a front line in countering China, as a trade and technology power, and as an exemplary democracy.

“The future of cross-strait relations will have a decisive impact on the world,” he said. “This means that we, who have inherited a democratic Taiwan, are pilots for peace.”

Congress recently approved a supplemental spending package that released $8.1 billion of military aid for Taiwan and for enhancing the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Vessels from the US and Taiwanese navies also held a joint military exercise in the Pacific last month, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said last week.

“Peace through strength is going to be his main posture on cross-strait relations,” Wen-Ti Sung, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub who analyzes Taiwanese politics, said of Lai.

There is increasingly sharp debate in Taiwan about how much the United States can help build up the island’s military in the next few years while still addressing Russia’s war in Ukraine and Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, neither of which is expected to end soon.

Taiwan’s backlog of undelivered orders of arms and military equipment from the United States had grown to nearly $20 billion by late April, according to estimates from Eric Gomez and Benjamin Giltner of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. The additional funds that 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 driving the island down a security dead end — unable to talk with Beijing and yet ill-prepared for any confrontation. Fu Kun-chi, a Nationalist Party member of Taiwan’s legislature who recently visited China, pointed to Ukraine as a warning.

“Since ancient times, people from a small country or region have not gone up against the biggest country next door for a fight,” Fu said in an interview. “Would it really be in the interest of 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 political divisions that could drag on Lai’s administration were on raucous display last week in the chamber, called the Legislative Yuan. Lawmakers from the rival parties shoved, shouted and brawled over proposed new rules about scrutinizing government officials. Opponents of the rules have called for demonstrations Tuesday.

Lai won a three-way race for the presidency in January with a little over 40% of the vote. A former doctor with a humble background, Lai also pledged to take on domestic problems such as a growing wealth gap and rising costs for housing.

But Lai could find it hard to push through his agenda, with the two main opposition parties holding the majority of seats in the legislature. In his speech, he called for the rival parties to work together.

“There is nothing he can do as president if the Legislative Yuan is stuck in brawls,” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “He has to find a way to get them to cooperate. If he cannot, then nothing else matters.”

Published 20 May 2024, 16:33 IST

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