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China's annexation goals 'will not simply disappear,' warns Taiwan's new president

William Lai was sworn-in as Taiwan's new president on Monday morning, in Taipei.
William Lai was sworn-in as Taiwan's new president on Monday morning, in Taipei. Copyright Chiang Ying-ying/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Chiang Ying-ying/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Jorge Liboreiro in Taipei
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William Lai has been inaugurated as Taiwan's new president, promising to deepen ties with other democracies around the world.

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China's long-held ambitions to bring Taiwan under its control will remain a threat to global security even if the self-ruling island bows to all Beijing's pre-conditions, President William Lai warned on Monday in his first speech after being sworn in.

Lai, who hails from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), used his inauguration to offer China an opportunity to choose "dialogue over confrontation" under the principles of "parity and unity," with the resumption of tourism and the enrolment of mainland students in Taiwanese institutions as possible first steps.

His policy echoes the broad lines set out by his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, who repeatedly angered China by asserting Taiwan was de facto independent. Lai served as Tsai's vice-president and is seen as a continuity successor.

"Today, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas continue to shake the whole world," Lai said. "And China's military actions and gray-zone coercion are considered the greatest strategic challenges to global peace and stability."

For the past 70 years, China has seen Taiwan as a breakaway region that should one day be "reunited" with the mainland. These aspirations hardened over time as Taipei became increasingly democratic and, therefore, increasingly critical of the authoritarian model promoted by the Communist Party.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has openly refused to rule out the use of military power to achieve "reunification," which he considers vital for his country's "rejuvenation." 

His rhetoric has sent alarms ringing across Western allies, who fear the forceful takeover of the island of 23.5 million would result in a massacre and wreak untold economic havoc due to Taiwan's quasi-monopoly over the semiconductor industry.

China sends military aircraft and drones around Taiwan on an almost daily basis and has been accused of conducting massive disinformation campaigns.

"As we pursue the ideal of peace, we must not harbor any delusions," Lai said.

"So long as China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, all of us in Taiwan ought to understand, that even if we accept the entirety of China's position and give up our sovereignty, China's ambition to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear."

Lai aims for 'peace through strength'

Lai has vowed to uphold the so-called "four commitments" established by his predecessor. As he made clear on Monday, these include a commitment that Taiwan and China should never be subordinate to each other. This is a non-starter for Beijing because treating Taipei as an equal would undermine its territorial claim.

China has instead pitched a "one country, two systems" model for incorporating Taiwan into the country while allowing the territory certain autonomy, as it was done when Hong Kong was handed over in 1997. 

But Taipei has rebuffed the formula, arguing Beijing has gradually encroached upon Hong Kong to erode fundamental rights.

William Lai spoke before thousands of Taiwanese citizens gathered in front of the presidential palace.
William Lai spoke before thousands of Taiwanese citizens gathered in front of the presidential palace.AP/AP

In his speech, Lai stood firm against China and called for the cessation of "political and military intimidation." But he refrained from radical ideas that would further inflame tensions and stressed the status quo should be kept in place.

The European Union and the United States, which have diplomatic relations with China and unofficial ties with Taiwan, also want the status quo to be maintained.

Taiwanese officials hope the multiple sources of friction between Western allies and Beijing, including Xi's no-limits friendship with Vladimir Putin, unfair trade practices, and human rights violations, will work in their favour and expand the island's participation in international organisations, like the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA).

The past few years have seen cross-party delegations of the European Parliament and the US Congress make closely watched trips to Taipei, a sign of growing support.

This renewed momentum, however, is guaranteed to fall short of diplomatic recognition. Lai's inauguration was attended by just a handful of heads of state from small-sized nations, like Eswatini, the Marshall Islands and Palau, who are still developing formal relations with Taiwan. Western democracies sent lower-ranking officials to avoid Beijing's wrath.

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As an alternative, the 64-year-old president proposed strengthening international cooperation in fields like artificial intelligence, climate change, and regional security. He also vowed to pursue bilateral investment agreements, an idea already endorsed by the European Parliament but dismissed by the European Commission.

"By standing side-by-side with other democratic countries, we can form a peaceful global community that can demonstrate the strength of deterrence and prevent war, achieving our goal of peace through strength," Lai said.

Monday's ceremony took place in front of about 20,000 people, according to the government's estimate, and featured a variety of performances designed to highlight Taiwan's cultural diversity and artistic creativity.

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