Democrat William Lai Becomes Taiwan President Amid China Tensions

Taiwan’s William Lai was sworn in as president of the democratic island, putting him right at the heart of a geopolitical rivalry involving the world’s two biggest powers.

The 64-year-old former kidney doctor and ex-vice president took his oath of office in Taipei on Monday morning. His inaugural address afterward will be closely watched for signs of how he will navigate the complex relationship between America and China, which has called him an “instigator of war” and pledged to bring Taiwan under its control someday, by force if necessary.

In the speech, Lai would indicate that he and his team would build on the policies of former president Tsai Ing-wen, said officials in the Presidential Office who asked not to be identified discussing the matter—reiterating a vow he’s repeatedly made to ensure a level of continuity.

Lai would say he’d cooperate with allies, as Tsai did, to deal with military and diplomatic pressure from China, the officials said. He’d pledge to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, they added.

Lai also planned to stick to Tsai’s stance that neither side of the strait was subordinate to the other, the officials said. He would urge both sides to pursue peace and prosperity, and express goodwill toward China.

Taipei’s relations with Beijing have become more pressing as China has stepped up military activity near Taiwan, raising the specter of a conflict. President Joe Biden has repeatedly said the U.S. would defend the self-governing island of 23 million people from any attack by China. Bloomberg Economics estimates a war over Taiwan would cost around $10 trillion, equal to about 10% of global GDP, dwarfing the blow from Ukraine, Covid-19 and the global financial crisis.

How Lai manages relations with China will be closely watched in Beijing and Washington. The Communist government cut off direct communication with Taipei after Tsai refused to accept the notion Taiwan is part of China when she came to power in 2016. Lai has regularly indicated he will continue many of Tsai’s polices—including embracing the U.S.—a stance that means Taipei-Beijing relations will likely remain frosty in the coming years.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have escalated significantly since mid-2022, when then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei and met with top leaders. Beijing responded to that trip with military drills that involved a mock blockade and missiles flying over Taiwan.

After Lai’s election victory early this year, Taiwan’s security officials warned Beijing could step up its pressure on him once he takes charge, while also offering economic incentives to those who help further its goal of unification. On Wednesday, China said it would sanction five Taiwanese political commentators and roll out a law to punish “separatists.”

Lai’s time in office could also be complicated by the Kuomintang controlling the legislature, even as the economy keeps cruising along, thanks to an artificial intelligence boom that has boosted exports for semiconductors and servers.

KMT lawmakers are moving to expand their power in the legislature by pushing a bill that would require Lai to deliver a state of the nation address to them every year and make a separate appearance to answer questions. Any officials found lying to lawmakers could face prison. 

Highlighting how contentious Taiwan’s domestic politics may get during Lai’s term, lawmakers from the two main parties got into a physical tussle in the legislature on Friday.

Lai will also touch on the challenges in the legislature in his speech on Monday, the officials in the Presidential Office said. He’ll also promise to develop the chip and AI industries.

The KMT is China’s preferred negotiating partner on the island. Beijing has sought to deepen its ties to the party—undermining the government in Taipei—with moves such as hosting former President Ma Ying-jeou and currently serving lawmakers for visits.