Taiwan Raises Its Voice And Reignites Controversy With Beijing – Analysis


By David Zhong

The world watched closely as Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, delivered his inauguration speech on 20 May 2024. While some experts noted Lai’s relatively conciliatory tone, suggesting an olive branch towards Beijing and his commitment to maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait, it would be wise to remain cautious.

Beneath the surface, much of Lai’s speech conveyed more hostile messages towards Beijing compared to former president Tsai Ing-wen. The most provocative element was his consistent reference to China simply as ‘China’. In contrast, Tsai typically referred to China as ‘the authorities in Beijing’ or ‘the authorities of mainland China’, adhering to the diplomatic terminology used by previous Taiwanese presidents. Lai was the first president of Taiwan to exclusively use ‘China’ in formal speeches.

By avoiding the direct reference to ‘China’, this approach aligns with the Republic of China (ROC) constitutional principle that the Beijing government is not a separate state but a local authority of the ROC. Though Beijing disfavours this stance, it is paradoxically preferred over a two-state scenario, as it still upholds the one-China principle.

The situation worsened with Lai’s proclamation that ‘the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other’. This statement, criticised by Beijing as a ‘confession of Taiwan independence’, asserts that mainland China and Taiwan are two separate and equal states. It directly contradicts the ‘1992 consensus’, a key political baseline agreed upon by the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1992, asserting that mainland China and Taiwan are part of one China.

Former governments have traditionally claimed that ‘both sides of the Taiwan Strait are not subordinate to each other’, honouring the ROC constitutional spirit by avoiding the use of official names. While Lai’s updated proclamation carries the same meaning, it diverges significantly in political implications.

Lai also made history by calling on China to ‘face the reality of the ROC’s existence’. While the traditional wording was already intolerable to Beijing, which has refused to acknowledge the ROC’s existence since 1949, Lai’s version is more provocative, calling for a separation between the People’s Republic of China and the ROC.

Inauguration speeches by Taiwanese presidents are significant as they establish the tone for cross-strait policies over the next four years. Traditionally, these addresses have been conciliatory towards China. Notably, former president Chen Shui-bian, the first Taiwanese president from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), proclaimed in his 2000 inaugural address that he would not seek de jure independence. Tsai even stated in her first address in 2016 that she would accept the historical facts of the Mainland–Taiwan dialogues in 1992, a partial recognition of the ‘1992 consensus’.

Lai’s inclusion of numerous ‘two-state theory’ statements in his inaugural address should deeply concern those who care about peace in the Taiwan Strait. If this was Lai’s most conciliatory address, it will likely be followed by tougher rhetoric in the coming years.

Of course, it is not that Lai must appease Beijing to demonstrate commitment to maintaining peace, nor should his commitment to peace be judged by China’s reaction to the speech. Lai pointed out that even if Taiwan were to accept China’s position entirely and relinquish its sovereignty, China’s ambition to annex Taiwan would not disappear. He implies that China has already lost its credibility in upholding the principles of ‘One Country, Two Systems.’ Given the events in Hong Kong since 2019, Lai’s argument is certainly convincing.

Lai’s commitment to maintaining peace should not be judged by the inaugural speeches of his predecessors. Since 2000, China has grown significantly more aggressive towards Taiwan, while Taiwan’s public sentiment has shifted further away from unification towards maintaining autonomy from Beijing’s control. The key point is to recognise Lai’s heightened hostility towards China compared to former president Tsai. This profoundly provocative address should not be misinterpreted as conciliatory.

Lai’s heightened antagonism towards Beijing is further complicated by domestic challenges. With his DPP party plagued by corruption and political scandal, Lai won the presidency with just over 40 per cent of the vote in January 2024. This slim margin has sparked speculation of a turbulent administration. The DPP’s loss of the legislative majority to a coalition between the KMT and the Taiwan People’s Party has already shown its disruptive potential during legislative reform contentions. Given these dynamics, Lai’s intensified hostility towards China leaves his administration vulnerable to attacks from the pro-Beijing KMT.

Most Taiwanese favour maintaining the status quo and peace with China. Yet Lai’s inaugural address introduced the prospect of increased conflict around the Taiwan Strait, exemplified by recent Chinese military drills in response to his speech. By disregarding public opinion and deviating from former president Tsai’s more moderate cross-strait policies, Lai is setting a precarious course.

From the DPP and Lai’s perspective, whether Beijing’s strong negative reaction to his speech was anticipated remains debatable. If it was expected, Lai’s antagonistic tone signals his long-standing pro-independence stance and an effort to solidify his base. Conversely, if Lai believed he extended an olive branch and did not foresee such a reaction, his cross-strait advisors should be held accountable for misguiding him into antagonising Beijing. But this seems less plausible as Lai, with his experience, is unlikely to be so easily misled.

The most concerning scenario is that this might represent the maximum level of conciliation that the DPP and the CCP can muster. While the immediate danger of war may not be pressing, their irresolvable differences could eventually escalate into a full-blown conflict.

  • About the author: David Zhong is a recent Masters’ graduate in Asian Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. His research focuses on East Asian politics and US–China relations. He has internship experiences at the Wilson Center and the Quincy Institute.
  • Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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