02.06.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Taiwan’s new president takes office

William Lai

Taiwan’s new chief executive, William Lai, who was elected in January, officially took office on 20 May. However, Lai’s hold on power could be complicated by the fact that his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has lost its majority in parliament to the more mainland-friendly opposition Kuomintang.

On 20 May, the new president elected in Taiwan’s general elections on 13 January, William Lai, who had previously served as vice-president, was inaugurated. He replaced his Democratic Progressive Party colleague Tsai Ing-wen, who had been Taiwan’s president for two consecutive four-year terms.

The island’s new and old executive administrations seem to have done their best to maximise the significance of the process of inaugurating W. Lai as president. Both in terms of domestic and foreign policy.

In particular, there is no doubt that it was intended to serve as a kind of counterpoint to the visit of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to China, which ended two days earlier. Putin’s visit to China and the “joint statement” adopted after his talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In the very first section of this lengthy document, the Russian side expresses its full support for China’s well-known position on the Taiwan issue as a whole.

In relation to this event of undoubted global significance, the procedure for the inauguration of W. Lai should have taken on an appearance of no less importance. From the outset, however, it could not, if not hide, at least mitigate the internal and external problems that had been sharply exacerbated just before the event in question.

The rift within

The internal component of the current phase of the Taiwan issue has been exacerbated by the same general election results. More precisely, the part of the election of a new parliament in which the DPP now finds itself in a minority against the increasingly coherent opposition of the Kuomintang (which won one more mandate than the DPP) and the Taiwan People’s Party. This will dramatically complicate the life of the new president, who has agreed to take the parliament’s opinion into account in his practical activities.

Meanwhile, the opposition has already announced its intention to legislate for a greater role for the legislature in the island’s domestic life and, in particular, to change the procedure for electing the same president. Currently, it is enough for a candidate to receive a simple majority (i.e. not even the “50 per cent plus one vote” principle) of those who go to the polls. These plans by the opposition have provoked a sharp rebuke from the DPP.

As always, visual images can be a substitute for verbose explanations of certain complex political phenomena. In this case, they are photographs of a parliamentary session held a few days before the inauguration. They were taken during the discussion of one of the points in the opposition’s general plan mentioned above.

A meeting in Taiwan’s parliament ended in a mass brawl

Apparently, the persuasive power of verbal argumentation was quickly exhausted and the participants in the “discussion” had to resort to the “last argument” of the parliamentarians. Moreover, the scuffle broke out when the issue of the chairmanship of the meeting was being decided. It was claimed by a Kuomintang representative who apparently foresaw how the “exchange of opinions” between the men who had lost their minds over “big politics” would turn out. So, she came into the meeting room with a (soldier’s?) helmet on her head. It didn’t help. Which, incidentally, became a powerful demonstration that the importance of gender differences had finally been overcome in Taiwan.

The aggrieved Kuomintang lawmakers, however, did not seem at all happy about this. At the press conference that followed, they tearfully reported the appearance (on some parts of their own bodies) of traces of the impact of the stubborn fingers of men from the opposite political camp who had been heated up by the “discussion”. However, the women (but not only) from the latter camp also took, as they put it, “a big hit“.

The above-mentioned parliamentary passions are themselves provoked by the underlying, ever-present key problem of contemporary Taiwan, which is the question of positioning in the force field being formed around the island by the world’s leading powers. And it is precisely on this issue that the views of the DPP and its opponents diverge markedly. This was clearly demonstrated not only during the above-mentioned “parliamentary debates”, but also during the earlier visit to China of the former (2008-2016) President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, who represented the Kuomintang Party at the time.

Foreign policy component

Meanwhile, the foreign policy situation around Taiwan looks no less turbulent than the domestic one. Meanwhile, the foreign policy situation around Taiwan looks less turbulent than the domestic one. Let us repeat that the domestic situation in Taiwan is important. Let us reiterate that the PRC denies the existence of a foreign policy component in this problem, stressing its “exclusively domestic” nature.

Strange as it may seem at first glance, Beijing’s main geopolitical opponents say something similar publicly when they (still) declare respect for the “one China” principle. However, actual political processes and the accompanying official and public rhetoric usually have little in common. The practice of the PRC’s main geopolitical opponent, the United States, on the same Taiwan issue is evidence of this. If the above-mentioned “respect” is supplemented by the thesis of the inadmissibility of its “violent” solution.

The effectiveness of this thesis is demonstrated by various types of concrete action. Among the most recent are the results of the recent summits held in Washington, first in a US-Japanese format and then in a trilateral format with the inclusion of the Philippines. The same thesis was soon reinforced by a qualitatively new scenario of the Balikatan military exercises, held annually in the South China Sea under the leadership of the United States.

An information leak about the last (“somewhere in April”) joint exercises of the US and Taiwanese navies directly links their motivation to the (then imminent) inauguration of U. Lai. As well as the (“first”) trip of the US ambassador to Japan to the island of the second Ryukyu archipelago closest to Taiwan a few days before the inauguration.

All these demonstrations have, of course, not gone unnoticed in China (and have been the subject of understandable official comment). The situation surrounding Lai’s inauguration, and the Taiwan issue in general, was also vividly portrayed in the leading Chinese newspaper Global Times.

Delegations from fifty countries came to Taipei for the ceremony 

The list and composition of foreign delegations attending the ceremony also attracted attention. It is reported that about 500 foreign guests from 51 countries attended the ceremony. However, it can only be said that they represented the countries they came from in relation to the 12 countries that still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The latter were not all represented at the highest levels of government.

The US delegation was led by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It also included Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Republican administration of George W. Bush Jr. in the 1990s. Mr Armitage was one of the architects of US policy in the Indo-Pacific region at the time. The presence of both men, now in private life, at the inauguration of Taiwan’s new president is noteworthy. Given the very likely prospect of the Republicans returning to power in six months’ time in a country that is one of the two main players in the Taiwan issue.

The United Kingdom (whose relations with the PRC are continuously deteriorating) was represented by 39 people, led by Dennis Rogan, a member of the House of Lords. Europeans in Taiwan at this time appeared, in general, quite a lot.

From Japan came an unusually large group of 31 parliamentarians. In addition, various kinds of semi-official representations (including the level of individual prefectures of Japan) had long been settled on the island, and many of their employees were also present at the inauguration.

In other words, the organisers of the whole event still managed to create a picture of foreign participation. However, let us repeat, rather in its quantitative aspects.

Inaugural speech of Taiwan’s new president

William Lai’s speech at the ceremony was a message addressed mainly to the other side of the Taiwan Strait. It was not without pathos that he declared the “crucial importance” for the destiny of the whole world of the nature of the relations between the “parties” identified by W. Lai. For the favourable development of these relations, the speaker formulated “four principles”. And at least two of them, “strengthening national defence” and “permanent, fundamental leadership between the two sides”, will almost certainly be rejected by the addressee.

This is also why Beijing is unlikely to change its assessment of Taiwan’s “new-old” administration, as outlined on the eve of the inauguration process discussed here.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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