Global Tensions and a Hostile Neighbor Await Taiwan’s New Leader

Taiwan’s president, Lai Ching-te, was sworn into office on Monday, facing hard choices about how to secure the island democracy’s future in turbulent times — with wars flaring abroad, rifts in the United States over American security priorities, and divisions in Taiwan over how to preserve the brittle peace with China.

Mr. Lai began his four-year term as Taiwan’s president in a morning ceremony, ahead of giving an inaugural speech laying out his priorities to an audience outside the presidential office building in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.

He has said that he would keep strengthening ties with Washington and other Western partners while resisting Beijing’s threats and enhancing Taiwan’s defenses. Yet he may also extend a tentative olive branch to Beijing, welcoming renewed talks if China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sets aside his key precondition: that Taiwan accept that it is a part of China.

“We’ll see an emphasis on continuity in national security, cross-strait issues and foreign policy,” said Lii Wen, an incoming spokesman for the new leader, whose Democratic Progressive Party promotes Taiwan’s separate status from China.

But Mr. Lai, 64, faces hurdles in trying to hold to the course set by his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen.

Unlike Ms. Tsai, Mr. Lai is less seasoned in foreign policy negotiations, and has a record of combative remarks that can come back to haunt him. He also must deal with two emboldened opposition parties that early this year won a majority of seats in the legislature — a challenge that Ms. Tsai did not face in her eight years as president.

When Ms. Tsai took office in 2016, Mr. Xi’s hard-line policies were starting to galvanize Western opposition. But now Western nations are also weighed by wars in Ukraine and the Mideast; Mr. Xi has been seeking to weaken the alliances forged against China; and the United States’ looming elections are adding to uncertainty about the direction of its foreign policy.

“It’s a much more fraught international environment for Lai in 2024 than Tsai in 2016,” said Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University, who studies Taiwanese politics. “The war in Ukraine, China’s turn toward even greater domestic repression, the deterioration in U.S.-China relations, and the last eight years of cross-strait hostility put Lai in a more difficult position.”

Beijing has already made plain that it loathes Mr. Lai more than it did Ms. Tsai. In coming weeks and months, it may step up military and trade pressure on Taiwan to try to weaken his presidency. Mr. Xi’s team of officials has also been energetically courting Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China and won the most seats in Taiwan’s legislature in elections this year.

Although Mr. Lai is not the reckless firebrand that Chinese officials make him out to be, they will not let go of his 2017 remark that he was “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence,” said Brent Christensen, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan who met Mr. Lai when he was a rising politician. (Washington does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and the institute is the de facto embassy.)

“Beijing has a long memory and a very deep distrust of him,” Mr. Christensen, now an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University, said of Mr. Lai. “They will continue to test him over the coming years.”

Officials around Mr. Lai have said that the continued U.S. support for Ukraine does not threaten Taiwan’s security lifeline with Washington. On the contrary, they say.

“Such a display of unabated and unquestionable resolve to safeguard democracy does not detract from the defense of places such as Taiwan,” Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s departing foreign minister, wrote in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. “In fact, it is a key deterrent against adventurism on Beijing’s part.”

Even so, there is debate in Taiwan about how much the United States can help build up the island’s military in the next few years while still tending to the wars in Ukraine and Israel-Gaza, neither of which is expected to end soon.

Taiwan’s backlog of undelivered orders of arms and military equipment from the United States had grown to nearly $20 billion by late April, according to estimates from Eric Gomez and Benjamin Giltner of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. The additional funds that Congress recently approved for Taiwan would be “helpful, but not a silver bullet,” Mr. Gomez said in an email.

Mr. Lai’s opponents in Taiwan say that he risks driving the island down a security dead end — unable to talk with Beijing and yet ill-prepared for any confrontation. Fu Kun-chi, a Nationalist Party member of Taiwan’s legislature who recently visited China, pointed to Ukraine as a warning.

“Since ancient times, people from a small country or region have not gone up against the biggest country next door for a fight,” Mr. Fu said in an interview. “Would it really be in the interest of Americans to have a war across the Taiwan Strait? I really don’t think so, and for the United States to face three battlefields at the same time, is it possible?”

The domestic political divisions that could drag on Mr. Lai’s administration were on raucous display in Taiwan’s legislature last week. Lawmakers from the rival parties shoved, shouted and brawled over proposed new rules about scrutinizing government officials.

An immediate confrontation with Beijing after Mr. Lai takes office is unlikely, government officials and many experts in Taiwan have said. Mr. Xi’s desire to stabilize relations with Washington and focus on repairing China’s economy has reduced his willingness to risk a crisis over Taiwan.

For now, Mr. Xi is instead likely to impose military, economic and political pressure on Taiwan. In recent months, China has sent coast guard ships near Kinmen, a Taiwanese-controlled island near the Chinese mainland, in a move aimed at intimidating while stopping short of a conflict that could draw in Washington.

Mr. Lai may be able to start containing tensions with Beijing by offering reassuring phrases in his inaugural speech, several experts said. That could include emphasizing his commitment to the constitution, under which Taiwan is called the Republic of China. Others close to Mr. Lai were skeptical that a major improvement in relations was possible.

Mr. Xi “wants to advance unification, he wants progress on that,” said I-Chung Lai, the president of the Prospect Foundation, a government-funded think tank in Taipei (he is not related to the president-elect). “But Taiwan just cannot make more concessions on that point, and so that’s the quandary that Lai Ching-te faces in dealing with China.”

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