New president’s speech suggests more hardline Taiwan approach to China

Prospect of fresh tensions with Beijing over Taiwan may make US uneasy

When Lai Ching-te made his inaugural speech outside the presidential palace in Taipei on Monday, he was addressing a number of audiences. There was the crowd in the square in front of him, mostly supporters of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); the broader Taiwanese public, 60 per cent of whom did not vote for him; and the international community.

But perhaps his most attentive listeners were in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing, where they studied every word and phrase through the narrowest lens. The Taiwan Affairs Office accused Lai of inciting confrontation and some Chinese media complained about his use of the word “nation” to describe Taiwan.

Beijing was also paying attention to what Lai did not say and it is what his speech omitted that offers the strongest signal that he could take a more hardline approach to cross-strait relations than his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen. A comparison of Monday’s speech with Lai’s remarks following January’s presidential election is instructive.

In January, Lai said that in dealing with Beijing, he would “act in accordance with the Republic of China constitutional order, in a manner that is balanced and maintains the cross-strait status quo”. This echoed a phrase used by Tsai when she was inaugurated in 2016 and sent a reassuring signal to Beijing because the constitution conceives of one China, although the government of the Republic of China only controls Taiwan.


Lai made no such reference when he spoke about cross-strait relations on Monday. Nor did he invoke the agreements between Beijing and Taipei in 1992 under which both sides agreed on a One China policy but each could decide for itself what that meant.

Tsai did not accept this so-called 1992 consensus but in her inaugural speech in 2016, she said she respected the understandings as a historical fact. Although Beijing pompously dismissed her speech as “an incomplete test paper”, Tsai in fact demonstrated a deftness that characterised her handling of relations with both Beijing and Washington throughout her eight years in office.

Lai is a less sophisticated political figure than Tsai, who was a former trade negotiator who served as the minister for mainland affairs before becoming president. His speech on Monday raised hackles in Beijing but it may also have caused unease in Washington, where there will be little appetite for fresh tensions with China over Taiwan.