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What William Lai's victory means for Taiwan, China, and the US

William Lai has been vice president of Taiwan since 2016 the self-ruled vibrant democracy and on 13 January 2024 won the election with 40.1% and is set to become Taiwan’s president representing the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the third consecutive presidential term and for the first time in the history of Taiwan’s democracy a single party to win a third term in office. DPP takes the hardest line against China compared to other Taiwanese parties. He has been labeled a troublemaker by China as it warned the Taiwanese people against voting for him saying “This is a choice between peace and war, prosperity and decline” implying the DPP. In his winning speech at a press conference, he said “We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism we will stand on the side of democracy, The Republic of China Taiwan will continue to walk side by side with democracies from around the world”.


William Lai in 2017 described himself as a “Practical worker for Taiwan independence”.  He is like his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen and refuses to agree to the 1992 consensus. since 2016 there has been no dialogue between Taiwan’s governing DPP party and China. China is unlikely to respond to William Lai's calls to restart dialogue and any sort of communication to be re-established, especially with the election of a president that they called a separatist. According to an article published by CNN on January 13, 2024, The foreign ministry of China said, “Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change.” President Xi Jinping said in his New Year's Eve television address to the nation “The reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability”. President Joe Biden was asked by a reporter in the White House as he was leaving for Camp David “Do you have a reaction to the Taiwan election?” to which he responded by saying “We do not support independence” The US and Taiwan have only an unofficial relationship.


The president of Taiwan has executive powers to do a lot of things especially when it comes to foreign relations and security policies which will allow William Lai to set the policies and the tone for cross-trade relations with China. William Lai is likely to continue to push for decoupling from the Chinese economy which he can move forward with without the need for support from the legislative branch. William Lai's presidency will be with a minority government. The opposition is the biggest block of the legislature with 60% after the DPP lost its majority in the legislature. That means passing legislation will be difficult and that will be important, particularly on issues such as the budget, enacting new laws, and spending on defense which is a critical issue in Taiwan given the threat faced across the Strait. William Lai will have to work with the opposition of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People's Party (TPP) to reach a consensus before pushing for policies. 


William Lai's DPP party presents new political narratives about what it means to be a Taiwanese and discusses an identity that is separate from that of China. Which angers China which considers Taiwan an integral part of its territory. William Lai will follow his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen's steps as he stated in his winning speech by strengthening links with Western countries like the US much to China’s distaste. The DPP strategy is in close alignment with the US prioritizing military, diplomatic, and economic ties with the US to protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack as opposed to the opposition’s argument of rebuilding the relationship with China and recalibrating the US relationship to avoid cross-strait conflict. Taiwan in the past 8 years under the DPP administration moved closer to the US and this trajectory is expected to continue under William Lai's presidency. William Lai vice president Hsiao Bi-khim used to be the former Taiwanese representative to the US from 2020 to 2023 and she is widely credited for enhancing Taiwan’s ties with the US.

China is expected in the lead-up to William Lai's inauguration speech to escalate pressure either through economic restrictions or military drills to send a message to him not to be radical in pushing Taiwan toward the road of formal independence which is what the US does not want either. Taiwan is the most complicated issue between the US and China and the election result will test those ties even further. Taiwan's cost of living has cost the DPP votes, because of disapproval and unpopularity of its domestic policies in the past 8 years. William Lai is expected to prioritize some of the hot-button issues such as low real wage growth, high property prices, inflation, and the youth unemployment rate. William Lai said in his winning speech that he would appoint opposition members to government positions and plan to incorporate the policies of his opponents into his policy framework.


Edited by: Megha Siddapura Manjunatha

Image: The Economist

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Tags: China US Taiwan William Lai


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