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INTERVIEW | A New Taiwan President Takes Stance, No Concessions to China

For Lai "maintaining the status quo" means defending a Taiwan that has a democratic and constitutional system of government, says Professor Yasuhiro Matsuda.



Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te visits soldiers and air force personnel in Hualien, Taiwan May 28, 2024. (©Reuters/Ann Wang)

Lai Ching-te was inaugurated as the new President of Taiwan on May 20. What does his administration mean for relations with China and the rest of Asia? 

To help us understand, Dr Yasuhiro Matsuda agreed to an interview with The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward. The University of Tokyo professor is an expert in the political and diplomatic history of Asia. 

A summary of the interview follows. 

President Lai Ching-te (center) speaks to reporters in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on May 26. (Courtesy of the Democratic Progressive Party via Kyodo News)

A New President for Taiwan

Elected as Taiwan's new president in January, Lai Ching-te launched his new administration on May 20. Using the occasion of his inauguration address to take a stance, Lai declared, "The Republic of China and the People's Republic of China are not subordinate to each other." He thereby signaled his intent to continue his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen's approach of "maintaining the status quo." 

According to Dr Matsuda, Lai's clear stance of resistance is in response to China's stepped-up pressure for unification. On China's part, that includes military threats. Lai's choice of words was not seen in Tsai Ing-wen's first inaugural address eight years ago in 2016. 

Lessons from the Tsai Administration 

In her speech back in 2016, Tsai indicated that she would stick to her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou's policy of maintaining stable China-Taiwan ties. Her stance appeared close to the "1992 Consensus" which China claims endorses its "one China" principle. In fact, there were even signs that she had engaged in behind-the-scenes dialogue with China before taking office. 

However, there were no signs of such reaching out in Lai Ching-te's speech. Rather, he expressed the intention to deepen cooperation with the international community, including Japan, the United States, and Europe.

In expounding her policy toward the mainland, Tsai showed a certain amount of consideration for Beijing's sensitivities. For example, by mentioning the constitution of the Republic of China (ROC) and the 1992 Cross-Strait Act, which presuppose eventual unification. Lai did not mention either document in his speech. 

Tellingly, Tsai did not gain anything by adopting a conciliatory stance toward China during her eight years in office. Instead, Taiwan has come under ever-increasing military, diplomatic, and economic pressure. Having taken to heart that lesson, Lai has overtly adopted a stance of resisting China. 

Maintaining the 'Status Quo'

Lai mentioned "China" seven times during his inaugural address, portraying it as a threat in nearly all cases. The conviction that "the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China are not subordinate to each other" became an article of faith for Taiwan while Tsai was still in office. And it forms the basis for Lai's recognition that Taiwan is already an independent nation that enjoys sovereignty. 

For Lai "maintaining the status quo" means defending a Taiwan which possesses a "democratic and constitutional system of government." He also evidences a strong determination to oppose any adversary seeking to destroy Taiwan's self-rule. 

Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te and US Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) shake hands in Taipei on May 29. (©Central News Agency via Kyodo News)

No Leeway for Invasion

China is wary of Lai, referring to him as an "advocate for Taiwan independence." Nevertheless, even though he has become Taiwan's president, there is little likelihood that China will attempt armed unification within the next four years. That is because the Chinese military lacks the wherewithal to do so. Furthermore, the US is strengthening its assistance to Taiwan so that China continues to be deterred. 

Previously, the US was dissatisfied with former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui's "two-state theory." It held that China and Taiwan had a special state-to-state relationship. But that was because Lee had announced it without prior coordination, catching Washington off guard. 

On the other hand, Lai has refrained from making any references to "independence." Furthermore, he is believed to have coordinated the content of his inaugural address with the US in advance. Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim (Hsiao Mei-ch'in) also previously served as Taiwan's ambassador to Washington. Although it officially endorses a "one China policy," the US in fact supports the current status quo line of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). 

China's Military Exercises

There is a possibility China will normalize its recent practice of conducting military exercises in waters adjacent to Taiwan. However, it is likely that Beijing will stop short of provoking a strong response from the United States. Beijing also seems eager to avoid tensions that could adversely impact its struggling economy. 

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that if Japan, the US, and other democracies are to prevent a Taiwan contingency, they must strive to bolster their defense capabilities. 

Chinese military ships sail as part of a military exercise, released by China's Eastern Theater Command on Weibo on May 24th (©Kyodo)

Continued Pressure From China

The existing pattern of pressure from China will not significantly change. China will likely intensify its diplomatic attacks to try to isolate Taiwan and bolster the opposition parties in Taiwan to force the DPP out of power. 

Nonetheless, there is one major difference from when Tsai Ing-wen was in office. Now, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) is the largest single party in the Legislative Yuan. Taking advantage of the KMT's pro-China tilt, Beijing could seek to have laws that frustrate its actions amended. That includes the Anti-Infiltration Act, which seeks to stop hostile forces from infiltrating Taiwan to interfere in its elections. 

There is no question that the Lai administration is faced with a difficult situation. The key to Lai's fortunes will be whether or not he can enlist the help of Ko Wen-je, chairman of the Taiwan People's Party. As the second largest opposition party, his party holds the casting vote in the balance among the political parties. If they can work out some kind of deal, The DPP government would be back in the driver's seat. 

In his inaugural address, Lai spoke of bolstering Taiwan's economy and decoupling from China. With the crackdown in Hong Kong and its "zero COVID" policy, the Chinese economy has lost its luster compared to eight years ago. Meanwhile, Taiwan's economy grew under Tsai so becoming less dependent on China will not have a severe adverse impact. 

On February 26, VP Lai Ching-te shakes hands with Kazuyuki Katayama, chief representative of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, at an event. (Courtesy of Taiwan President's Office)

Support from Japan

Lai "welcomed" Taiwan businesses abroad to come back and invest in Taiwan. As more and more Taiwanese companies leave China, the ties between it and Taiwan are certain to become weaker. 

Within the DPP Lai has a reputation for being "pro-Japan" and he has great expectations for Japan. Taiwan and Japan have been deepening their ties in the economy, culture, and humanitarian assistance sectors. With China trying to exclude Taiwan from international society, words and actions on the part of Japan, such as visits to Taiwan by Diet members, will become increasingly important. 

Background on the 2024 Taiwan Election

Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, is the leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). He was inaugurated as Taiwan's new president on May 20, after defeating Kuomintang and Taiwan People's Party candidates in the January general election. His term of office is four years. 

This is the first time since the introduction of direct elections in Taiwan that one political party has won three consecutive presidential elections. Lai's predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, served two four-year terms. On the other hand, the Kuomintang is now the largest single party in the Legislative Yuan. With the government divided, as a minority ruling party, the DPP is expected to find governing difficult. 

Yasuhiro Matsuda, Professor Tokyo University (Photo: Tomo Kuwamura ©Sankei)

About Dr Yasuhiro Matsuda

Yasuhiro MATSUDA is a professor of international politics at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo. A native of Hokkaido, he received his PhD from the Graduate School of Law at Keio University in Tokyo. The author and academic specializes in the political and diplomatic history of Asia, especially relations between China and Taiwan, and Japan's foreign and security policies. His major published works include The Establishment of a One-Party Dictatorship in Taiwan (Keio University Press) and A History of Japan-Taiwan Relations (1945-2020) (University of Tokyo Press). Find his full biography on the University of Tokyo website.


(Read the interview article in Japanese.)

Interview by: Tomo Kuwamura