New Taiwan president swings at China—but pulls punches—in first speech

Taiwan’s new President Lai Ching-te during his inauguration ceremony. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Taiwan’s new President Lai Ching-te during his inauguration ceremony. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS


Lai Ching-te gave a carefully calibrated inauguration speech that reflected his delicate status at the fulcrum of tensions between the U.S. and China.

TAIPEI—Taiwan’s new president said the island democracy would serve as a “helmsman of global peace" under his watch in a carefully calibrated inauguration speech reflecting his delicate status at the fulcrum of tensions between the U.S. and China.

With Beijing and Washington both listening carefully, Lai Ching-te offered to keep Taiwan open to engagement with China. At the same time, he pushed back with some gusto against Beijing’s territorial claims over Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China.

“We all know that only where you have sovereignty, do you have a country," Lai said on Monday to a large crowd outside Taiwan’s red brick Presidential Office Building, constructed when the island was under Japanese colonial rule.

“It’s clear that the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other," he said.

The line drew a roar of applause from the crowd gathered on Monday to hear him speak outside Taiwan’s red brick Presidential Office Building, constructed when the island was under Japanese colonial rule.

Lai won office in January with 40% of the vote in a three-way race, defeating two opposition candidates who campaigned on closer ties with China. He was previously vice president under Tsai Ing-wen, who was limited to two terms under Taiwan law.

Tsai, Taiwan’s first woman president, was credited with guiding one of the world’s most effective responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and forging close relations with the U.S. and other allies amid unrelenting Chinese pressure.

Lai said his government would “unapologetically maintain the status quo" established under Tsai.

The 64-year-old politician is known for his resolve—what some critics describe as stubbornness—and for his deep skepticism of China. His early tenure is likely to be the focus of scrutiny globally, with China intensifying military pressure on Taiwan and the U.S. preoccupied with two ongoing conflicts and an unpredictable presidential election of its own.

Strategically located just 100 miles off the Chinese coast, Taiwan is the most sensitive flashpoint in the relationship between the U.S. and China. The island also produces the overwhelming majority of the world’s advanced semiconductors, which are critical to both the American and Chinese economies.

“The future we decide is not just the future of our nation, but the future of the world," Lai said.

China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory, although the Chinese Communist Party has never controlled the island, and seeks to undermine its international standing and elected officials such as Lai who resist Beijing’s claims.

President Biden sent a delegation to Taipei, including two former U.S. officials—Brian Deese and Richard Armitage—as well as the chair of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei.

A senior U.S. official described the delegation’s trip as routine and cautioned Beijing not to overreact during what the official said was a sensitive time.

“Beijing will be the provocator should it choose to respond with additional military pressure or coercion," the official said.

Beijing severed official communication channels with Taipei under the Tsai administration. Tsai firmly rejected China’s territorial claims and its proposal of governing the island under “one country, two systems," a framework that Beijing applied to Hong Kong after its handover to the mainland in 1997.

Lai and his vice president, Hsiao Bi-khim, are perceived by Beijing as even stronger advocates of Taiwan independence than Tsai. Lai, who once described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence," has worked to try to calm fears in Washington that he would antagonize Beijing.

Beijing hasn’t ruled out the use of force in taking control of Taiwan and considers any moves by the island toward independence a red line.

Chen Binhua, a spokesman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Taiwan independence and peace in the Taiwan Strait are incompatible, likening them to “water and fire" that cannot coexist.

“Any political party in Taiwan, as long as it acknowledges the One China principle, will have no obstacles in engaging with us," Chen said during a news conference last week before Lai was sworn into office.

Beijing ramped up its efforts to pressure Lai ahead of his Monday speech. Security officials in Taipei reported a surge in online harassment linked to China, with daily reports of cyberattacks and disinformation increasing from around one million in January to roughly 2.5 million as of May 11.

Meanwhile, China’s military aircraft are flying more assertively—and closer to Taiwan’s mainland. Just last month, Taiwan’s military reported a Chinese sortie only 37 nautical miles from the northern city of Keelung, near its capital Taipei.

Political analysts said they expect Beijing to test Lai to see how he handles increased Chinese military activity around Taiwan. Any display of frustration—or losing his cool—could play into China’s hands, reinforcing its portrayal of Lai as a troublemaker, according to Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore.

It’s crucial for Lai to emulate the calm and strategic approach of his predecessor, Chong said.

“The future situation is indeed more complicated than the past eight years," said a senior official in the Lai administration, citing the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Gaza and China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. “These have resulted in Taiwan facing a more challenging international environment, and we expect the complex factors to continue for the next few years."

Taiwan’s main opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, has said a further breakdown in relations with Beijing under Lai would increase the risk of war. Andrew Hsia, the KMT’s deputy chairman, said however that there was room for Lai to improve communication with Taiwan’s neighbors.

“If goodwill continues to build, I believe there will be some form of interaction," he said in an interview before Lai’s inauguration.

Lai spoke after a parade that featured military marching bands, multilingual Taiwanese rap performances and puppets of birds found on the island. He said he hoped to improve engagement with China, which he said could start with allowing Chinese students to come to Taiwan and a lifting of restrictions against two-way tourism.

At the same time, he accused Beijing of destabilizing the region, calling on Chinese leaders “to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan."

With Lai taking power, the Democratic Progressive Party occupies the presidency for a third term in a row. No party had previously held the top office for more than two terms in Taiwan’s democratic era.

Despite that run of success, the party faces a challenging political landscape at home. It failed to maintain its legislative majority in the general elections, meaning Lai could struggle to push through major policy changes.

On Friday the legislature broke into scuffles as the Democratic Progressive Party attempted to block an effort by the opposition Nationalist Party and its allies to force through new rules that would give the body greater power among other controversial proposals.

“Lai Ching-te is really boxed in politically," said Kharis Templeman, a scholar of Taiwan politics and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

This could motivate him to shift toward the center of the political spectrum and a more moderate stance on China to secure re-election in 2028, he said.

Write to Joyu Wang at and Austin Ramzy at

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