Taiwan’s new president-elect, Lai Ching-te, is likely to face his toughest task yet when he takes office in May and has to deal with the ire of China which has repeatedly denounced him as a dangerous separatist.
Lai, who won Saturday’s election, repeatedly said during the campaign that he wanted to keep the status quo with China, which claims Taiwan as its own, and offered to talk to Beijing.
“We don’t want to become enemies with China. We can become friends,” Lai, widely known by his English name William, told a Taiwanese television station in July.
But in Beijing’s view, Lai, 64, is a separatist and “troublemaker through and through” for comments he first made in 2017 as premier about being a “worker” for Taiwan’s formal independence – a red line for Beijing.
The next year he told parliament he was a “practical worker for Taiwan independence”, causing one Chinese newspaper, the widely read Global Times, to call for China to issue an international arrest warrant for Lai and prosecute him under China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law.
Lai maintains he simply meant Taiwan is already an independent country. On the campaign trail, he stuck by President Tsai Ing-wen’s line that the Republic of China – Taiwan’s formal name – and the People’s Republic of China are “not subordinate to each other”.
Under Taiwan’s constitution, the Republic of China is a sovereign state, a view shared by all of Taiwan’s main political parties. The Republic of China’s government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists, who set up the People’s Republic.
What worries Beijing is the idea that Lai could try to change the status quo by declaring the establishment of a Republic of Taiwan, which Lai has said he will not do.
“I think China hates him, really hates him,” said Wu Xinbo, an international relations professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “It is because if he is elected as the leader of Taiwan, he may come to advance his goal of Taiwan independence, which will provoke a crisis across the Taiwan Strait.”
Still, while China has announced sanctions on several senior Taiwanese officials, including Lai’s running-mate Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s former de facto ambassador to the United States, it has not done so for Lai, perhaps indicating Beijing does not want to totally shut the door to one day having talks with him.
LAI URGED CHINA’S XI TO ‘CHILL OUT’
During the campaign, Lai said he would stick to President Tsai’s path of proffering talks with China and maintaining peace and the status quo, while also pledging to defend the island and reiterating only its people can decide the island’s future.
Stephen Tan, managing director of the International Policy Advisory Group in Taipei, said Lai’s platform was similar, if not identical, to that of Tsai, who is barred from seeking re-election after serving two terms.
“I would not envision from his policy and administration a big change in direction for both domestic and foreign policies,” Tan said.
Lai is from a humble background in northern Taiwan, the son of a coal miner who died when the president-elect was a small child. A physician, the younger Lai specialised in spinal cord injuries.
He became Tsai’s vice president in 2020 when they won in a landslide warning of the threat to Taiwan from China given Beijing’s crackdown on anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Since then, China has massively ramped up military drills near Taiwan and held war games in August 2022 and last April in response to Taiwanese engagement with the United States.
Taiwan officials said this week they expected China to attempt to put pressure on the incoming president, including with military drills near Taiwan, before Lai takes office.
In May, at a question and answer session with students at his alma mater, National Taiwan University, Lai said the head of state he would most like to have dinner with is Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he would advise to “chill out a little”.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said his comments were “weird” and “deceitful”, given that his “Taiwan independence nature” had not changed.
Beijing has demanded Taiwan’s government accept that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “one China,” something Tsai and Lai have refused to do.