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Lai Ching-te’s Inaugural Address: 5 Things To Watch

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Lai Ching-te’s Inaugural Address: 5 Things To Watch

When Taiwan’s next president takes office on May 20, the world will be paying close attention to the signals he sends in his first speech.

Lai Ching-te’s Inaugural Address: 5 Things To Watch
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

On May 20, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, will be inaugurated as Taiwan’s president. In the coming days there will be much speculation as to what Lai will say, especially about his China policy. After Lai delivers the inauguration address, it will be analyzed by experts not only in Taiwan, but in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. 

Like every democratically elected leader in his first term, what Lai wants most of all is to win a second term in 2028. Thus, it’s more on point to compare his inauguration address to the first inaugural address of President Tsai Ing-wen, delivered on May 20, 2016. Tsai’s second inaugural address on May 20, 2020 is also useful as a comparison, though it was delivered under the unique circumstances of the global pandemic and when term limits prevented Tsai from seeking re-election.

Here are five things to watch for in Lai’s inauguration address:

1. References to Taiwan Independence

On September 26, 2017 in the Legislative Yuan, Lai, then the premier, described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence.” Will President Lai repeat the statement in his inaugural address? When it comes to Taiwan’s relationship with China, this statement is Lai’s most famous comment on the topic, regardless of what he said about cross-strait relations during the presidential campaign.

Of course, it was easier for Lai to say this when was premier, and more difficult to say it as president. Pressure from the United States, and concern about how China might react, makes it impossible for Lai to repeat his famous comment. Instead, he will likely continue his new emphasis on maintaining the “status quo,” in keeping with Tsai’s approach to cross-strait relations. 

2. References to China

As Lai cannot repeat that he is a “practical worker for Taiwan independence,” he will have to find other ways to describe China and Taiwan as two separate countries. Descriptions of China such as “the other side of the strait” (對岸) or “mainland area” (大陸地區), don’t achieve the goal of emphasizing that each side doesn’t have sovereignty over the other.

In Tsai’s 2020 inaugural address, she referred in Mandarin to the other side of the strait (對岸), but the English version translated the term as “China.” This was the only direct reference in her address to China. The simple solution will be for Lai to refer to “China” throughout his address.

3. References to the Republic of China 

Whenever the president makes an important address such as on New Year’s Day or National Day, reporters and commentators will note how many times the president refers to Taiwan by its formal name, the Republic of China, versus how many times the president refers to the country as “Taiwan.” 

For example, in Tsai’s final National Day address last October, media reported that she referred to the Republic of China five times, and to Taiwan 37 times. Lai will probably refer to the Republic of China once or twice, such as at the beginning of his address when he notes that he has taken the oath of office as the Republic of China president, or, when he pledges to uphold the Republic of China Constitution. However, he is likely to refer to Taiwan many more times than he refers to the Republic of China, which will come as no surprise.

4. Economic Goals

A large portion of Tsai’s 2016 inaugural address was devoted to talking about the economy. Tsai called for “transforming economic structures,” and her economic policies include “buzzwords” like Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program, circular economy, and 5+2 innovative industries

With economic concerns looming large in the 2024 election, Lai’s agenda here will be closely watched in Taiwan. How much of his address will be devoted to important domestic social issues such as elder care, housing costs, and low salaries?

In her 2016 inaugural address Tsai also said Taiwan would pursue membership in two regional trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Although Taiwan eventually applied in 2021 to join the TPP’s successor, the CPTPP, there’s no certainty Taiwan will ever be invited into the trading bloc, and with China a member of the RCEP, there is little likelihood that Taiwan can join. Perhaps it’s best for Lai that he not mention Taiwan’s hopes to join these two trade agreements.

5. Relationship With the Opposition 

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Tsai Ing-wen and Ma Ying-jeou, Lai will not enjoy a majority in the Legislative Yuan. In the few months since the new Legislative Yuan took office this past February, there are already numerous situations that show how difficult relations will be between the Legislative Yuan, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), and the Executive Yuan or Presidential Office, held by Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Will Lai refer to this situation, and will he offer to work with the KMT in the Legislative Yuan? 

In addition to lawmaking, and the Legislative Yuan majority’s desire to monitor the Lai government, Lai’s relations with the opposition will also include the issue of transitional justice that Lai inherits from Tsai. In fact, Tsai devoted a portion of her 2016 inaugural address to this topic, and she certainly achieved much in this regard, starting with the Act Governing the Settlement of Ill-gotten Properties by Political Parties and Their Affiliate Organizations that the Legislative Yuan passed into law on July 25, 2016, only two months after Tsai took office. Subsequently the Ill-Gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee froze many of the KMT’s assets, a situation the opposition party has failed to recover from.

Separately, there are other things to watch in Lai’s address. Will Lai refer to Taiwan’s closest ally, the United States, and say that relations are “rock solid” as the Taiwan government often does? Will Lai refer to “democracy” versus “autocracy” as the Taiwan government also often does? Will Lai confirm that his government will continue the New Southbound Policy

In 2024 there is a large number of elections around the world. Few new leaders will be as closely watched, or have a vital role in geopolitics, as Lai. Good luck to him!