Thursday, June 13, 2024

Taiwan’s new president takes office and calls on China to cease hostile actions

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Lai Ching-te has been sworn in as Taiwan’s new president, urging China to “cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan” and to keep the world free from the fear of more war.

Lai was inaugurated on Monday morning at the Japanese colonial-era presidential office in central Taipei, taking over from Tsai Ing-wen, whose eight years in power saw a deterioration in relations with Beijing.

China claims democratic Taiwan as a province, and has called Lai, 64, a “dangerous separatist” who will bring “war and decline” to the island. The Chinese Communist party has never ruled over Taiwan, but Xi Jinping has declared that what he terms “reunification” is inevitable.

In his first address as president, Lai said the future of Taiwan was as important to the world as it was to Taiwan’s people, noting the island’s strategic importance.

He called on China to “cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan, share with Taiwan the global responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan strait as well as the greater region, and ensure the world is free from the fear of war,”.

“I hope that China will face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence, respect the choices of the people of Taiwan, and in good faith, choose dialogue over confrontation, exchange over containment, and under the principles of parity and dignity, engage in cooperation with the legal government chosen by Taiwan’s people.”

Taiwan’s new president calls on China to stop making threats – video

He warned Taiwanese citizens not to harbour delusions and to demonstrate their resolution in defending the nation.

“So long as China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, all of us in Taiwan ought to understand, that even if we accept the entirety of China’s position and give up our sovereignty, China’s ambition to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear,” he said.

Lai praised Taiwan’s democratic process – using the Chinese word for “democracy” 31 times in his speech.

He noted Taiwan’s dark history under authoritarian rule from 1949 until the late 1980s, and the first direct presidential elections in 1996. Those elections “[conveyed] to the world that the Republic of China Taiwan is a sovereign, independent nation in which sovereignty lies in the hands of the people”.

A helicopter carrying Taiwan’s flag flies past the presidential office building during Lai Ching-te’s inauguration ceremonies in Taipei Photograph: AP

Lai and the vice-president, Hsiao Bi-Khim, who served as Taiwan’s top envoy to Washington, are both part of the Democratic Progressive party (DPP), which has championed Taiwan’s sovereignty.

In the past, Lai has described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”, but recently toned down his rhetoric and moved in line with Tsai’s more moderate stance, for which she was praised during her tenure as helping to keep the peace without capitulation.

Ahead of Lai’s inauguration, Beijing’s Taiwan affairs office, which handles cross-strait issues, called “Taiwan independence and peace in the strait … like water and fire”.

On Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs said Taiwan independence was “a dead end, and no matter under what banner, secession is doomed to fail”.

Chinese warplanes and naval vessels maintain a near-daily presence around the island, and in the week before the swearing-in ceremony there was an increase in the number of fighter jets and drones. There was no immediate reaction to Lai’s speech from Beijing , but Chinese social media platform Weibo blocked a hashtag relating to the inauguration.

Lai drew cheers from the crowd when he said he wanted to see the resumption of bilateral reciprocal tourism between Taiwan and China, which is restricted. Lai said it had to happen under certain conditions of “dignity and cooperation with the legal government chosen by Taiwan’s people”. Many people in Taiwan have social and business ties with China and would like a return to friendly interactions, even though they do not want unification.

Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said Lai’s speech “reiterated deterrence is the foremost safeguard of Taiwan’s security and that accommodationism will not work”.

Dr Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an assistant professor at Taiwan National Dong Hwa University, said the speech was “firm and strong but also inviting China to reconsider its refusal to engage in dialogue with any DPP administration”.

International Crisis Group China analyst Amanda Hsiao said the prospect for dialogue was low, without a clear basis that she thought both sides could accept.

Lai has sometimes demonstrated his scepticism of the Republic of China (ROC) constitution as the basis for cross-strait affairs, in a different approach to Tsai, who used the ambiguities within it about the existence of “one China” for her dealings with Beijing. In his speech on Monday, he referenced the constitution but said China and the ROC were not “subordinate” to each other.

“His speech shows he’s sceptical of formulations that can be construed as legitimising the idea of “one China” out of concern that this gives more ground to China’s claim,” said Hsiao. “I think he’s quite distrustful of Beijing’s intentions.”

The inauguration ceremony began at 9am (01.00 GMT) with Lai and Hsiao sworn into office inside the President’s Office in Taipei. Among the small crowd of witnesses were Morris Chang, the founder of TSMC, the leading semiconductor manufacturer that makes most of the world’s highest grade chips and is responsible for a significant portion of Taiwan’s GDP.

After the formalities Lai, Hsiao and Tsai went outside to greet the thousands of delegates and members of the public gathered for the ceremony. Tsai shook the hands of the incoming team, in front of a screened message thanking “Xiao Ing” (a nickname for Tsai meaning “little Ing”) for her service.

In the VIP section of the ceremony sat more than 600 people in delegations from multiple countries, including 11 of Taiwan’s 12 diplomatic allies and key international friends including the UK, US, Japan and Australia. Among the American delegation was the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Beijing had issued objections to the delegations sent from countries that formally recognise Beijing over Taipei, but none of those delegations contained heads of state or senior ministers.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, congratulated Lai, saying he looked forward to Washington and Taipei deepening ties and maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan strait”. During the ceremony China’s commerce ministry announced sanctions against three US weapons manufacturers for supplying arms to Taiwan.

Lai also acknowledged the domestic challenges he faced, including housing costs, the wealth divide and cost of living pressures. He also pledged to improve public infrastructure. Lai won the presidency but the DPP lost its majority in the legislature.

Taipei has been buzzing with preparation in recent days – air force planes and helicopters have been flying over the city in practice for the aerial formation that congratulated Lai. Between speeches, the crowd was treated to an array of Taiwanese dance performances ranging from traditional opera to hip-hop.

Among the crowd was Li Xin-xiang, a 92-year-old Taiwanese man living in Osaka, who came back for inauguration.

“Taiwan is an independent sovereign country. It doesn’t matter that we have no diplomatic relations,” he told the Guardian.

‘Twenty-three million people will decide our own destiny. We are not subordinate to mainland China … government, people, land, sovereignty, constitution, we have it all.”

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