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Taiwan’s new President Lai Ching-te urges China to stop its military threats

Members of a Chinese military honor guard. (Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, USAF/Released)
May 22, 2024

Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te urged China to cease its military and political intimidation against the self-governing island, as his inauguration ushered in an unprecedented third term for his independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“I hope that China will face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence,” the 64-year-old said, using Taiwan’s official name, in an inaugural address on May 20.

His comment drew loud cheers from the 20,000-strong audience on the boulevard in front of the Presidential Office. More than 500 guests from 51 foreign delegations were among the audience.

Beijing needs to respect the choices of the Taiwanese people, he said, adding that he hoped China would “choose dialogue over confrontation, exchange over containment, and under the principles of parity and dignity, engage in cooperation with the legal government chosen by Taiwan’s people”.

This can start with the resumption of cross-strait tourism “on a reciprocal basis”, as well as the enrolment of Chinese degree-level students at Taiwanese universities, said Mr Lai, a former doctor who was vice-president from 2020 till his inauguration as president.

Since his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, Beijing — which claims sovereignty over Taiwan — has cut off all official communications with Taipei, citing Ms Tsai’s refusal to endorse the notion of a single Chinese nation.

China halted individual travel to Taiwan in 2019, citing the poor state of cross-strait relations, before suspending group travel to the island in 2020.

In the same year, Beijing also banned its students from enrolling in new degree programmes in Taiwan universities, citing concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic and cross-strait ties.

“Let us together pursue peace and mutual prosperity,” Mr Lai exhorted in his speech, adding that both sides of the Taiwan Strait had a shared responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the region.

The inauguration ceremony, which took place in the late morning under cloudy skies, was attended by leaders from some of the 12 countries with which Taipei still maintains formal diplomatic ties, including Paraguay’s President Santiago Pena.

Several former American officials, current lawmakers from countries including Japan and Canada, and the Taipei-based de facto ambassadors of countries with no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan also attended the event.

Spectators were treated to a show of marching bands, military foot drills, and song-and-dance performances from different community groups.

Hours earlier at 9am, Mr Lai was sworn in at the Presidential Office alongside new Vice-President Hsiao Bi-khim, 52, who had served as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Washington from 2020 until her resignation in November 2023 to run in the election in January.

While the new administration is expected to largely continue the policies of Ms Tsai, Beijing has a particular distrust of Mr Lai, repeatedly labelling him a “dangerous separatist” and a “troublemaker”.

China has never renounced the use of force to achieve “reunification”, and has stepped up its diplomatic, economic and military pressure against the island in recent years.

Since Mr Lai’s election in January, Chinese military aircraft have flown closer to the island compared with earlier such flights, with an unspecified number of planes flying as close as 37 nautical miles to the northern Taiwanese port city of Keelung. This is the closest known fly-by that the Taiwanese military has made public.

Beijing also began conducting regular coast guard patrols near Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen islands about 3km off the coast of southern Fujian province in recent months and entering what Taipei calls the islands’ “restricted” and “prohibited waters”. China has denied the existence of such restricted areas.

Mr Lai said such moves show that Taiwan “must not harbour any delusions” even as the island pursues peace.

“So long as China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, all of us in Taiwan ought to understand that even if we fully accept China’s proposition and give up our sovereignty, China’s attempt to annex Taiwan will not disappear.”

Taiwan needs to demonstrate its resolution to defend itself, raise its defence awareness and strengthen its legal framework for national security, he added.

In response, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Mr Lai’s speech had “stubbornly adhered to the stance of Taiwan independence” and gone against mainstream public opinion on the island.

“The leader of the Taiwan region released dangerous signals, seeking ‘independence’ provocations and undermining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” said the spokesman. “This fully exposed his true nature as a ‘Taiwan independence worker’.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference that Taiwan independence was “a dead end”.

“No matter how the internal political situation in Taiwan changes, it will not change the historical and legal fact that both sides of the strait belong to one China,” he said. “The day of China’s complete unification will come eventually.”

Besides geopolitical challenges, domestic headwinds also loom large for Mr Lai as his party lost its parliamentary majority in January’s concurrent legislative elections, which could make it harder for his administration to push through policies.

While no party ended up with an absolute majority in the 113-seat legislature, the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) has 52 seats, one more than the DPP’s 51, while the smaller Taiwan People’s Party became kingmaker with eight seats. Two other seats went to independents ideologically aligned with the KMT.

On May 17, a dispute over parliamentary reforms led to chaos in the Taiwanese legislature, with lawmakers shoving and tackling one another. Several legislators were injured in the melee and taken to hospital for treatment.

Acknowledging the new political landscape in the legislature, Mr Lai said it is a result of the people’s choice.

“The people of Taiwan have high expectations for rational governance among political parties. Apart from competition, parties should also believe in cooperation,” he said.

“The majority should respect the minority, while the minority accepts majority rule. Only then can we avoid conflict and maintain a stable and harmonious society.”


(c) 2024 the Asia News Network

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