Despite Beijing’s Tough Talk, Chances of War Appear Slim — for Now — as Free China’s New President Awaits Inauguration

Far from challenging the Communist regime with rhetoric about the island democracy’s independence, William Lai at his inauguration is expected to wave an olive branch of kinship while focusing on domestic issues.

AP/Ng Han Guan
Taiwan's president-elect, Lai Ching-te, center, before casting his vote on January 13, 2024. AP/Ng Han Guan

Taiwanese fighter jets and helicopters will swoop over Taipei Monday as a figure who’s had harsh words for Beijing is sworn in as the new president of the Republic of China on Taiwan. 

The aerial display should dramatize the defiance of the incoming president of Taiwan, William Lai, as Communist Chinese navy vessels and planes routinely encircle the island in a program of bullying and intimidation. 

The contrasting displays of power, however, do not mean that Mr. Lai, whose full Chinese name is Lai Ching-te, plans to declare formally Taiwan’s independence — even though he did say last year that Taiwan was already a “sovereign independent  nation.” The Communist regime at Beijing has never ruled Taiwan but has long vowed to take control of the island democracy — by force if necessary.

“I don’t think Taiwan policy will change,” a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sue Mi Terry, said at a forum at Seoul staged by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “They do not want war.” Nor is Beijing likely to translate bombast into action, analysts contend. 

“I am much less worried about Taiwan than I was a couple of years ago,” said a retired British diplomat, John Everard, talking at the Asan forum. “China at the moment is much more worried about its economy. I don’t sense Beijing is ready to go to war over Taiwan.” 

It was nearly two years ago, in August 2022, that the then-speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, aroused Beijing’s ire by leading a Congressional delegation to Taiwan. Beijing responded by sending scores of planes and ships within striking distance of the island, igniting fears that this time it might actually stage an invasion.

Since then, however, tensions have eased markedly as Taiwan gets accustomed to routine patrols from the mainland while strengthening its own forces. Most of the island’s 24 million people prefer the status quo of an advanced economy, including the world’s biggest chip-maker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, to risking armed conflict. 

Far from challenging Beijing with rhetoric about Taiwan’s de facto independence, Mr.  Lai at his inauguration is expected to wave an olive branch of kinship while focusing on domestic issues.

Members of Mr. Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party, socially centrist but hardline in its resistance to control from the mainland, “believe that the tone of Lai’s speech will be conciliatory,” the Taipei Times reports.  

As vice president under the outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, Mr. Lai represents continuity. As he settles into his job, like his predecessor he will want to build up militarily with American support.

True, Washington does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan while recognizing Beijing as capital of all China. America, though,  does have some advisers on Taiwan, and it provides arms and promises to defend the island. American and Taiwan warships have even conducted joint exercises.

China’s sagging economy may take the edge off Mr. Xi’s aggressiveness but also compromises economic ties. Taiwan companies have been withdrawing investment from the mainland while cross-strait trade has been declining. 

Mr. Lai, however, has to consider one factor aside from relations with the mainland. That is pressure from the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, to adopt a conciliatory policy.

A former Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, who is a Kuomintang leader, recently visited the mainland bearing messages of goodwill and cooperation. He even met Mr. Xi, who told him the people of Taiwan are all “Chinese,” born of “one country and one nation.”

Mr. Lai can’t easily ignore the Kuomintang, which won one more seat than his Democratic Progressive Party in the national assembly, or legislative yuan, in elections the same day he was elected president. Kuomintang leaders say they are too busy on the day of the inauguration and won’t attend. 

Most Taiwanese “want to keep the status quo,” says a China policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, Patricia Kim. 

China, under Mr. Xi, has not gotten over its anger with Mr. Lai for contending that Taiwan is independent even if Beijing considers it a Chinese province. “China is very much upset by William Lai,” said Ms. Kim. “He needs to be aware of the sentiment.”

The New York Sun

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