Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

‘No Concessions on Democracy and Freedom’: Taiwan’s New President Tells Beijing

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: May 20, 2024
Taiwan's new President Lai Ching-te gives a speech at his inauguration ceremony on May 20, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Image: Annabelle Chih via Getty Images)

On May 20, Taiwan’s newly inaugurated president, William Lai Ching-te, issued a stark call to Communist China to cease its threats against the island nation, and to acknowledge Taiwan’s democratic existence. 

During the speech, Lai urged Beijing to abandon its confrontational stance and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan. He emphasized that Taiwan would never yield to intimidation from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has long claimed the island as a rightful part of its territory. 

Lai: ‘Peace is the only option’

“I want to urge China to stop intimidating Taiwan politically and militarily,” said Lai during his swearing-in ceremony. He also asked Beijing to “take on the global responsibility with Taiwan to work hard on maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the region, to ensure the world is without the fear of war breaking out.” 

Officially called the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s government was founded in 1912 but its forces were driven off the mainland by communist rebels in 1949. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime views Taiwan as a renegade province and has long vowed to reclaim it by “any means necessary.” 

A screen shows Taiwan’s new President Lai Ching-te giving a speech at his inauguration ceremony on May 20, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan. Lai urged China to stop its military threats against Taiwan in his inaugural address. Lai is expected to continue the policies of outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen, who was barred from running again after two terms. (Image: Annabelle Chih via Getty Images)

“We also want to declare this to the world: Taiwan makes no concessions on democracy and freedom. Peace is the only option and prosperity is our goal for long-term peace and stability,” said Lai. 

President Lai and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates a separate national identity and eventually formal statehood for Taiwan, have long attracted Beijing’s displeasure. In recent years, PRC forces have conducted regular air and naval patrols near Taiwan’s waters and airspace, heightening fears of potential conflict.

Meanwhile, the CCP maintains that its focus is on achieving “peaceful reunification” between Taiwan and mainland China, and is seen as working with opposition parties in the ROC to bring about political changes on the island.

Taiwanese authorities reported that mainland China’s military forces had carried out another “combat patrol” near the island on May 14. This included sending aircraft across the Taiwan Strait’s sensitive median line. 

MORE ON THIS: Cross-Strait Tensions Rise Ahead of Taiwan’s Presidential Inauguration

Though Lai has described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwanese independence” in the past, he has followed his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, who managed relations with Beijing cautiously yet firmly during her tenure.

Tsai served eight years as ROC President and Taiwan’s first female leader. She was regarded as taking action to boost Taiwan’s international partnerships and presence, while downplaying the matter of Taiwan’s formal statehood to avoid an escalation of tensions from Beijing.

In his address, Lai labeled these incursions as the “greatest strategic challenge to global peace and stability.” He highlighted the necessity of peace and dialogue to ensure stability in the region.

(L-R) Taiwan’s former President, Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s new President, Lai Ching-te, and the new Vice President, Hsiao Bi-khim, show up on the stage during Taiwan’s new President Lai Ching-te’s inauguration ceremony on May 20, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Image: Annabelle Chih via Getty Images)

Following Lai’s speech, Beijing responded swiftly with the usual unyielding rhetoric. “Taiwan independence is a dead end,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the PRC Foreign Ministry, during a daily press briefing. “Regardless of the pretext or the banner under which it is pursued, the push for Taiwan independence is destined to fail.”

Continuation of Tsai’s policies

William Lai, a former physician-turned-politician, secured the presidency in a three-way race in January, winning an unprecedented third term for his party. Having served as Vice President and Premier under Tsai, Lai’s political journey has been marked by his transition from an openly pro-independence advocate to a stance similar to Tsai’s.

Lai’s commitment to bolstering Taiwan’s defenses follows the path laid by Tsai Ing-wen. Under her administration, Taiwan’s defense budget saw significant increases, reaching approximately $20 billion. Investments were also made in new battle tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and a fleet of missile-carrying ships to patrol the Taiwan Strait. The pinnacle of these efforts was the development of Taiwan’s first indigenous submarine, which was completed last September.

This picture taken on an undisclosed date in December 2016 shows Chinese J-15 fighter jets waiting on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in the Bohai Sea, off China’s northeast coast. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

During the speech, Lai also reiterated his commitment to maintaining the status quo — a delicate balance that acknowledges Taiwan’s sovereignty without outright declaring an independent Taiwan, which could provoke military action from the PRC. Starting in 2020, Tsai has said that “the Republic of China — Taiwan” is already a fully independent country, precluding the need for further declarations.

Lai also stressed the importance of strengthening Taiwan’s defenses and called for the re-establishment of cross-strait exchanges, including the return of Chinese tourist groups to Taiwan.

“Fellow citizens, we have the ideal to pursue peace, but we must not have illusions,” said Lai, adding, “Before China gives up using force to invade Taiwan, citizens must understand this: Even if we accept all of China’s claims and give up our sovereignty, China’s ambition to annex Taiwan will not disappear.”

RELATED: Pro-CCP Sogavare Steps Down as Leader of the Solomons, Dealing Major Blow to Beijing

Bolstering national defense 

But Lai has also pledged to continue the defense enhancements put forth by Tsai. His administration’s military investments, while criticized by some for potentially provoking PRC forces, are viewed by others as essential for deterring Beijing’s aggressive maneuvers.

Furthermore, Lai’s ability to govern effectively may be hindered by a divided parliament. The DPP no longer holds a majority in the Legislative Yuan, and this political fragmentation was starkly displayed over the weekend when lawmakers engaged in physical altercations over proposed reforms. These disputes cast a shadow over Lai’s inauguration and his initial address as president.

Mark Liu, Executive Chairman of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), speaks during the SEMICON Taiwan 2023 at the Nangang Exhibition Center in Taipei on 6 September 6, 2023. The UK is prominently present at the event with a delegation of 19 high-profile tech firms. (Image: SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

Ultimately, Lai’s approach to mainland China will be the defining aspect of his presidency. Since 2016, when Tssai Ing-wen won the presidency, formal communications between Taipei and Beijing have been nonexistent. Efforts by the DPP to establish talks have been ignored.

Hsu Chih-ming, a lawyer who attended the inauguration, expressed optimism tempered with caution. “Taiwan fared quite well under Tsai, but there’s a need to maintain good communications with China,” Hsu said. “Lai said he was a ‘practical worker for Taiwan independence.’ I hope he wouldn’t emphasize this too much and worsen cross-strait relations. Otherwise, all of us wouldn’t be able to escape if a war broke out.”

Maintaining the status quo

The international community, particularly Taiwan’s allies, is closely monitoring Lai’s rhetoric and actions. The U.S., a crucial supporter, is particularly attentive to Lai’s diplomatic maneuvers. Vice President Hsiao Bi-Khim, regarded as Tsai’s protege, is a reassuring figure for Washington due to her extensive experience and ties with the U.S. Hsiao also served as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Washington.

At home, Lai faces significant challenges. Unemployment and rising costs of living have alienated younger voters — a factor that contributed to the DPP’s difficulties in the January elections, where 3.5 million Taiwanese voted for the third-party candidate Ko Wen-je. In addition, Taiwan’s economy, which is heavily reliant on its semiconductor industry, presents both a wealth of opportunity as well as a potential vulnerability.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government, particularly the Biden administration, has confirmed on several occasions that it would come to the self-ruling island’s defense should an invasion from the PRC take place. It has also continued to provide the island with defensive weapons and technical training under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979.