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With Lai Ching-te Inauguration, Taiwan Has a New President

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With Lai Ching-te Inauguration, Taiwan Has a New President

Lai’s inaugural address was consistent with his pro-status quo platform on cross-strait relations. Domestic politics could pose a more immediate flashpoint, however.

With Lai Ching-te Inauguration, Taiwan Has a New President

Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te (second from left) and Vice President Bi-khim Hsiao (second from right) wave during the inauguration ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan, May 20, 2024.

Credit: Shufu Liu / Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was sworn into office today as Taiwan’s president. This makes Lai the fifth democratically-elected president in Taiwanese history to take office. Much speculation ahead of time focused on Lai’s inaugural address, which is usually closely watched for what new presidents say about cross-strait relations. 

In particular, outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen steered the DPP toward a pro-status quo position, in which the official stance of the DPP was that Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country by the name of the Republic of China (ROC) that had no need to declare independence. To this end, Tsai emphasized moderation in cross-strait relations, so as to avoid her administration being perceived as a pro-independence provocateur in the mold of Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president   

Lai, however, has a history of pro-independence statements going back to his time as the mayor of Tainan, the southern Taiwanese city often seen as a bastion of pro-independence views. When mayor of Tainan, Lai referred to himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.” 

That being said, as Lai’s name began to be floated as a possible frontrunner for president, Lai sought to moderate his image, at one point rankling his pro-independence base with a statement that it was possible to “love Taiwan while having an affinity to China” and that this was how he felt himself. Consequently, during campaigning for 2024 presidential elections, Lai emphasized that he would maintain the foreign policy of the Tsai administration, and that he would adhere to a pro-status quo position that maintained the institutions of the ROC. 

Lai’s inaugural address was consistent with his platform during campaigning. Lai stated that he hoped for peace, at a time of heightened tensions and increasing gray zone tactics by China directed at Taiwan. He said that there were measures that China could carry out to dial back tensions, such as allowing for the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis. Lai also emphasized that he was a president of the ROC, that the ROC was already sovereign and independent, and that he hoped for China to accept the existence of the ROC. 

In part, Lai’s references to the ROC reflect how the political landscape has changed under Tsai, with the DPP increasingly referring to the “ROC Taiwan” when this would have been anathema to previous DPP political leaders. Traditionally, the DPP viewed the ROC as a colonial regime imposed by the KMT after its retreat to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War. In comments, Lai alluded to how distinctions are now drawn between the “ROC Taiwan,” “ROC,” and “Taiwan,” with the KMT sometimes framing the “ROC Taiwan” referenced by the DPP as being different from the ROC that it adheres to. 

Lai also repeatedly referred to a notion of “Taiwan of the world,” as implicitly juxtaposed to a notion of Taiwan as part of China. Lai emphasized that Taiwan would continue to strengthen ties with the international world, whether in terms of defense, cooperation against shared threats such as disinformation, or seeking admittance to international trade agreements. 

On the other hand, although a delegation of ten KMT lawmakers traveled to Itu Aba/Taiping Island on Saturday to try to pressure Lai to emphasize claims by Taiwan over the island, Lai did not bring this up during his speech. Itu Aba/Taiping Island, part of the Spratly Island group in the South China Sea, is claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam alike. Lai likely did not want to potentially sabotage strengthening ties between Taiwan and the Philippines as of late, as driven by the Philippines’ recent territorial contentions with China.  

The optics in many ways set the tone for Lai’s comments as they pertain to cross-strait issues, with inauguration ceremonies always fraught with symbolism. As with the inauguration ceremonies that took place under the Tsai administration, the performances that took place sought to highlight contemporary Taiwan’s cultural diversity, with performances by Indigenous and Hakka musicians. 

There was also a visible focus on spotlighting the military, for example, by having an army band play adapted versions of traditional Indigenous melodies, Taiwanese rock standards such as Lim Giong’s “Marching Forward,” and the theme song to “Kano,” the 2014 film about a multiethnic Taiwanese baseball team during Japanese colonial times. Tsai made it a priority to rehabilitate the image of the military during her second term in office, especially after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. 

This was a clear attempt to rebrand the military as in line with the progressive and pluralistic values of the “Sunflower generation” – referring to young people who participated in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, the monthlong occupation of the Taiwanese legislature by students against efforts by the KMT to pass a trade agreement with China. The military has historically been perceived as the political enforcer of the KMT in authoritarian times by members of the pan-Green camp. 

Moreover, though Lai did not refer directly to their defense applications, industries that Lai touted as a priority for development to create opportunities for young people were those that could play a role for Taiwan’s defense, such as the development of unmanned aerial vehicles or the space industry. Taiwan has seen calls for a shift to an asymmetric defense strategy and development of the space industry because of the possibility of disruptions to submarine cables or other infrastructure in the event of invasion. 

In terms of domestic policy, Lai stated that he would assist efforts to revitalize the eastern county of Hualien after successive earthquakes in past weeks, ensure that the labor insurance system does not go bankrupt, and improve the healthcare system to fight cancer and other long-term illnesses. Lai further stated that he would improve pedestrian safety, fight crime, maintain a stable power supply, and allow for an energy transition to renewables given the global effects of climate change. 

Otherwise, though Lai broadly called for political unity, the new president surprised by referring to ongoing contention between the pan-Green and pan-Blue camps over efforts by the KMT and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) to pass laws that would grant prosecutorial powers to legislators, using the majority that both parties have in the legislature if they vote together. 

The new powers pushed for by the KMT and TPP would allow the legislators to summon private individuals or government officials for questioning. Those who refuse to disclose information under questioning, even confidential information regarding trade secrets, negotiations over foreign policy, or arms purchase agreements, could be found guilty of contempt of the legislature and face up to three years in jail. 

The DPP has framed the issue as potentially leading to political targeting of opponents on vaguely defined legal grounds by the pan-Blue camp, as well as risking the disclosure of state secrets in a manner that endangers national security. KMT lawmakers have been accused of leaks aimed at sabotaging Taiwan’s defense or diplomatic relations. Earlier this year, Ma Wen-chun, named to co-chair of the Legislative Yuan’s defense committee, was accused of leaking confidential documents about Taiwan’s domestic submarine program to South Korea and China. Fellow KMT legislator Hsu Chiao-hsin currently faces legal charges from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for publicizing confidential documents about Taiwanese assistance for reconstruction programs in Ukraine. As such, the suggestion is that the KMT could use these powers to sabotage the Lai administration in a way that endangers Taiwanese sovereignty. 

The KMT and TPP were also criticized for skipping committee review for the legal changes and pushing the bill through to its second reading without a line-by-line review in the committee, to try and force the changes into law. Fights broke out in the legislature on Friday when the DPP sought to prevent this from occurring. Four DPP legislators and one KMT legislator were hospitalized after the clashes, which went viral online. 

Although the Taiwanese legislature is well-known for fights breaking out during deliberations, this level of violence has been relatively rare in past years. Such actions have led to condemnation from the National Taiwan Bar Association, as well as human rights groups such as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights. 

The night that the bill was initially to be voted on, a protest of several hundred took place outside of the legislature before the session was adjourned at midnight and demonstrators dispersed. On Sunday, one day before the inauguration, the TPP rallied around 8,000 in support of the changes outside of DPP party headquarters. 

Further protests are planned for Tuesday, when the bill will be discussed again, with many comparing the rapidly escalating series of events to the circumstances that led to the 2014 Sunflower Movement. As such, it is possible that the first major political conflict of the Lai administration could take place just one day after Lai’s swearing-in.