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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Inui

In Pursuit of Sovereignty: Lai Ching-te’s Presidential Victory and Taiwanese Independence

Taiwanese president-elect William Lai Ching-te

Vice President William Lai Ching-te's election as Taiwanese president raises questions about the future of Taiwanese independence and relations with China (Presidential Office Building, Wikimedia Commons)


On January 13, current Vice President William Lai Ching-te won the Taiwanese presidential election. However, labeled as a “dangerous separatist” by China, Lai’s victory spells uncertainty for Chinese-Taiwanese relations moving forward.


What is the Controversy Surrounding Taiwan?


Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Taiwan’s status as a sovereign nation has been heavily disputed. After losing to the Chinese Communist Party and fleeing to Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party established the Republic of China in opposition to the mainland Chinese government. However, despite being a founding member, the Taiwanese Republic of China lost its membership in the United Nations in 1971, and the mainland People’s Republic of China took the seat. Democratization in the 1900s saw the emergence of a uniquely Taiwanese identity. However, since then, few nations have officially recognized Taiwan as a sovereign state.


Taiwan is functionally independent, with its own constitution, military, democratically elected government, and currency. It is also seen as a leader in human rights and health care globally. However, China continues to claim sovereignty over Taiwan and argues that any debate about Taiwanese independence is purely an internal affair. China pushes its claim over the island by blocking Taiwan’s admission into international bodies, most notably the World Health Organization, and leveraging its economic and political powers against possible Taiwanese allies.


How Was The Election Determined?


Lai, along with his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, won more than 5.5 million votes, securing a historic third successive term for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Taiwan’s electoral system has a first-past-the-post structure, so the candidate with the highest percentage of votes wins, regardless of whether they achieve a true majority, allowing Lai to win with only 40 percent of the vote. 


While Lai’s ticket ended more than 900,000 votes ahead of his nearest rival, Hou Yu-ih of the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) party, the previous DPP president, Tais Ing-wen, won with more than 50 percent of the vote, hinting at the declining popularity of Lai’s party compared to previous years. Further, the DPP lost its majority in the Taiwanese legislature to the KMT, securing only 51 seats as opposed to the KMT’s 52 (third party and indigenous peoples make up the remaining ten seats in the 113-seat parliament). That being said, this is the first time in Taiwanese history a party has won three successive presidential terms.


Besides the DPP’s historic success, this presidential election saw incredible voter turnout, with more than 70 percent of the island’s 19.5 million voters showing up at the polls, largely because of the massive stakes of the election. Increasing threats from China, including characterizing Lai as a “dangerous separatist,” have turned the election into an informal referendum on Taiwanese independence. “We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy,” Lai said in his victory speech.


Who Is Lai Ching-te?


Lai Ching-te is a former doctor who first entered politics in 1996 as a member of the National Assembly, moving on to serve in almost every top post in Taiwan, including as the widely popular mayor of the southern city of Tainan. Most recently, he has served as the vice president since 2020 and chairman of the DPP since 2023. 


As vice president, Lai Ching-te worked to expand Taiwan’s presence internationally, often crossing China in the process. For example, Lai visited Paraguay, one of Taiwan’s few formal diplomatic partners, which received heavy criticism from Beijing. However, Lai has repeatedly said he wishes to maintain the status quo in terms of Taiwan’s independence status and hopes to engage Beijing in diplomatic talks. However, he also pledged to build up the island’s military defense. “As president, I have an important responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Lai said. “We are also determined to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China,” he added.


How Did China Respond to Lai’s Win?


China has been accused of utilizing military threats, diplomatic pressure, and fake news over the past several months to influence the Taiwanese presidential election. While the Chinese government made no direct statements regarding the election, it is suspected that China conducted military exercises in the Taiwan Strait to stoke fear on the island, pushing voters toward Hou Yu-ih, who opposes Taiwanese independence.


After Lai’s win, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated its commitment to Taiwanese reunification. “Our stance on resolving the Taiwan question and realizing national reunification remains consistent, and our determination is as firm as rock,” said Chen Binhua, spokesperson for the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office, adding that reunification is “inevitable.” However, he added that China will continue to work with Taiwan to “advance the peaceful development of cross-strait relations as well as the cause of national reunification.”


Where Does The World Stand On This Issue?


While many countries maintain trade and informal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, only 12 countries are formal diplomatic allies with the island. Many countries, such as the U.S. and Australia, have tiptoed around the issue, offering their congratulations to Lai while simultaneously reiterating their opposition to Taiwanese independence. Other countries in Southeast Asia, heavily influenced by China, will likely emphasize their call for peaceful reunification, while China’s closest regional partners, such as Cambodia, Laos, and the Maldives, may adopt more hostile rhetoric. 


Notably, Nauru, one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, chose to sever ties with the island less than 48 hours after the results of the presidential election were released. In a statement, Nauru said it seeks to resume diplomatic relations with China “in the best interests of the Republic and people of Nauru.” The small Micronesian island nation added that they would adopt a one-China policy, recognizing Chinese claims to Taiwan as an “inalienable part of China’s territory.” A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Nauru’s decision is “welcomed” and that it marks “a new chapter in bilateral relations with Nauru on the basis of the one-China principle.” However, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, commented that he was “very upset” by the recent developments, and Tien Chung-kwang, vice-minister of foreign affairs, commented that “of course China chose this moment to have the biggest impact.”


The Future For Lai in Taiwan


While Lai’s victory was a historic victory for both the DPP and Taiwanese nationalists, it was bittersweet. With the DPP’s margin of victory shrinking, and without a majority in the parliament, Lai is likely to face incredible pushback on his legislative agenda. However, Lai has said he would cooperate with his rivals, adding that he hopes to include talent from their parties in his cabinet. 


In terms of China, many do not expect Lai to initiate talks with Beijing. Instead, they suspect he will maintain his position of being open to dialogue, but wait for China to take action. Instead, most experts expect Lai to continue expanding the Taiwanese economy and bolstering ties with Taiwan’s allies. “It is reasonable to expect that the DPP will continue to try and reduce its trade dependence on China and renew efforts to establish even firmer relations with important partners like Australia, Europe, and Japan, in an effort to strengthen its economic security,” said Simona Grano at the Asia Society Policy Institute's Center for China Analysis.


As Lai prepares to take office, he has a difficult road ahead of him. However, he is determined to pave a road for the island. “The country will continue to walk on the right path forward,” he told world media after his win. “We will not turn around or look backward.”


 

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