Taiwan’s new president calls for peace amid tenuous relations with China

In his first speech as president of Taiwan, Lai Ching-te emphasized preserving peace amid rising tensions with China and criticism that he could provoke military conflict.

At his inauguration Monday, Lai called for China to help maintain peace and halt military and political intimidation directed at the self-ruled island. Chinese President Xi Jinping considers Taiwan a part of China’s territory and has vowed to pursue its unification with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Denounced by China as a “separatist” who advocates for Taiwan’s independence, Lai stressed his dedication to preserving the status quo without ceding ground to Beijing’s claims of sovereignty.

“As we pursue the ideal of peace, we must not harbor any delusions,” he said after his being sworn in. “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.”

The Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office posted a statement Monday after Lai’s speech saying that he “stubbornly maintains a separatist stance of ‘Taiwan independence’” and accused him of undermining peace and stability in the region.

China also sanctioned three U.S. defense contractors Monday for providing weapons to Taiwan.

China has ramped up military activity around the island of 23 million in recent years. It has also cut preferential tariffs and trade on certain goods from Taiwan, in what officials have criticized as economic coercion.

Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that while Lai’s remarks may reassure some foreign governments that he will not pursue formal independence for Taiwan, it did little to placate leaders in China.

“There is virtually nothing that Lai could have said, short of ‘unconditional surrender,’ that would satisfy Beijing,” Russel said.

Lai’s election marks the first time that one political party in Taiwan has ruled for more than two presidential terms. Under his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, the island democracy bolstered defense spending and strengthened ties with the U.S., which recently passed a bill to provide $8 billion in aid to Taiwan.

Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at Australia National University who specializes in cross-strait relations, said Lai’s inauguration speech largely telegraphed his plan to continue the same policies as Tsai, whom Beijing cut contact with when she took office eight years ago.

“He’s trying to project an image of pragmatism and predictability,” Sung said.

Lai, a 64-year-old former doctor who also goes by the first name William, won election in January with 40% of the vote and faces a divided parliament. In his remarks, he addressed the need to work with opposition lawmakers as well as domestic issues such as low wage growth, energy security and affordable housing.

“This new structure is a result of the people’s choice,” he said. “Looking at it with a different frame of mind, a lack of absolute majority means that the ruling and opposition parties are now all able to share their ideas, and that we will be undertaking the nation’s challenges as one.”

He also proposed restarting tourism and student exchanges with China.

“Cross-strait relations will remain fragile and mired in distrust,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at International Crisis Group. “But the resumption of tourism and student exchange can help improve the atmosphere.”

There was sparse coverage of the inauguration in Chinese state or social media. On Weibo, China’s X-like social media platform, searches for Lai and Tsai appeared to be blocked. The Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid, called Lai a secessionist in an article Sunday and warned that he may become emboldened in taking steps toward independence during his time in office.

“In the long term, the state of cross-Straits relations will not be optimistic,” the article said.

Special correspondent Huiyee Chiew in Taipei contributed to this report.

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