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What Europe needs to know about William Lai, Taiwan's new president

William Lai has presented himself as a continuity successor of Tsai Ing-wen.
William Lai has presented himself as a continuity successor of Tsai Ing-wen. Copyright Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan).
Copyright Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan).
By Jorge Liboreiro in Taipei
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William Lai, Taiwan's new president, has vowed to strike more investment deals, support Ukraine and partner up with other democracies.

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Taiwan, the self-ruling, high-tech island that has become a flashpoint in the deepening rivalry between China and the West, has entered a new political chapter.

Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, was this week inaugurated as president, succeeding Tsai Ing-wen, whose steady, soft-spoken leadership in the past eight years has been credited with redefining Taipei's approach to Beijing.

Having served as vice-president during Tsai's second mandate, Lai has fashioned himself as an enabler of continuity, rather than a disruptor who comes to shake things up at a precarious time of growing geopolitical tensions in the region and beyond.

"The future of cross-strait relations will have a decisive impact on the world," the 64-year-old said after being sworn in, speaking in front of thousands of his fellow citizens.

Here's what Europe needs to know about William Lai.

He used to be a doctor

Born in 1959 to a mining family, Lai studied medicine in Taiwan and obtained a Master's Degree in public health from Harvard University. He entered politics in the mid-1990s as a representative of the city of Tainan with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the centre-left party that led the charge to install political reforms based on Western liberalism – much to Beijing's dismay.

From there, his trajectory moved upwards: from national legislator to mayor of Tainan to then prime minister and later vice-president. In January this year, Lai won the elections with a plurality of 40%, marking the first time the victorious candidate failed to secure at least 50% of votes. Still, his triumph gave the DPP its third consecutive presidential tenure, albeit without a parliamentary majority.

By sheer coincidence, one of Lai's most immediate diplomatic objectives relates to his erstwhile field: medicine. His executive is bent on securing Taiwan's participation – as an observer – in the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA) to be held in late May.

For eight years, Taiwan took part in this annual forum under the name "Chinese Taipei." But Beijing argued this breached Resolution 2758 of the United Nations General Assembly, which switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (RoC) to the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the only lawful representative of China.

This reading is disputed by Taipei, which says its participation can take many forms without undermining the PRC's standing. Countries like Germany, France, the UK, Canada and the US have backed Taiwan's comeback. Brussels is also on board.

"In general, Taiwan should be included in specialised multilateral fora where statehood is not a requirement and where its technical competence and capacities bring an added value in areas related to the EU and global interests," an EU spokesperson told Euronews.

He prefers the status quo

Lai is a long-time member of the DPP, which defends that Taiwan is culturally and politically separate from China and actively promotes the development of a Taiwanese identity.

In 2017, Lai made headlines when he described himself as a "pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence," a phrase that resurfaced during his presidential bid. Beijing slammed him as an "instigator of war" and "troublemaker through and through," orchestrating a massive interference campaign to sway voters and derail the DPP's electoral ambitions.

Lai has since toned down his stance, echoing his predecessor's line that there is no need to declare Taiwan independent because Taiwan is de facto independent. He has vowed to uphold Tsai's so-called "four commitments," which include a commitment that the RoC and the PRC should never be subordinate to each other.

During his inaugural speech, Lai offered China a chance to resume formal dialogue, interrupted since 2016, on the basis of "parity and dignity" and stressed the status quo in the Taiwan Strait should be maintained through peaceful means.

"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," he said.

Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim (left) and President William Lai (right).
Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim (left) and President William Lai (right).Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan).

"We stand strongly against any kind of unilateral change of the status quo of Taiwan, in particular by the use of force," von der Leyen said.

Beijing, though, is unfazed by Lai's pitch. "Let me stress that 'Taiwan independence' leads nowhere. No matter what banner or pretext the separatists use, 'Taiwan independence' is doomed to failure," Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of China's foreign ministry, said after the inauguration. "China will and must achieve reunification."

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He wants to bring investment back

Taiwan has over the years gained what is arguably one of the most sought-after competitive edges: semiconductors, the tiny chips that power billions of electronic devices, from rudimentary microwaves to AI-powered weapons.

The quasi-monopoly is so valuable that it has been dubbed the "Silicon Shield," meaning China could be deterred from invading simply out of fear of triggering an irreparable disruption of global supply chains and suffering untold economic havoc.

In his speech, Lai extolled this powerful leverage and said "humanity's well-being and prosperity" depended upon the island's manufacturing output.

The EU is determined to expand its homegrown semiconductor industry and achieve what Brussels calls "strategic autonomy." Under the European Chips Act, the bloc plans to mobilise at least €43 billion in public and private investment to secure a 20% market share by 2030. In order to be successful, these transactions need to involve established actors in the field that have acquired hard-to-replicate expertise.

The initiative has borne some fruits. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world's largest supplier of chips, will invest nearly €3.5 billion to build a plant in Dresden, Germany, expected to be operational in 2027. Meanwhile, ProLogium, a Taiwanese firm that manufactures advanced batteries for electric vehicles, will pour €5.2 billion into a new factory in Dunkirk, France. (Both blueprints entail hefty state aid.)

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Lai has said Taiwan must "seize the business opportunities that come as a result of geopolitical changes," name-checking semiconductors, AI and next-generation communications as prime examples. Remarkably, he then added his government would work to "welcome Taiwanese businesses abroad to come back and invest in Taiwan."

The president also said his executive would "endeavor to sign bilateral investment agreements with other democracies." The idea of an EU-Taiwan investment agreement was endorsed last year by the European Parliament and floated by Lai during his campaign. But the European Commission has so far rebuffed the project, fearing doing so would divide member states and unleash Beijing's wrath.

China came close to signing a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with the bloc before the project was indefinitely frozen due to heightened tensions.

He sides with the West

As of today, Taiwan maintains official diplomatic relations with only 11 countries, most of which are small islands, and the Holy See. By contrast, the EU, the US, the UK, Canada and the majority of the international community abide by the "One China" principle and recognise the PRC as the sole government of the nation named China.

Lai made no pretense of trying to enlarge this already-meager number: for the past decade, Beijing has ramped up its outreach activities to convince other countries to cut ties with Taipei. The last one to flip was Nauru in January 2024.

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Instead, the new president is betting on Taiwan's model of liberal democracy as the best asset to move away from China's shadow and align with Western allies, who are enraged by Beijing's latest actions, including its "no-limits" friendship with Russia.

Taipei has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine, a country invaded by its large neighbour, and imposed sanctions to deprive the Kremlin of high-end products. By contrast, Beijing is accused of helping Moscow to get hold of blacklisted items.

"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 after being sworn in.

International engagement will be a top priority for his administration, despite his lack of foreign policy credentials. His choice of vice-president, Hsiao Bi-khim, was Taipei's envoy to Washington while his foreign affairs minister, Lin Chia-lung, previously worked to enhance links with Asia and Oceania.

For the EU, these intentions presage deeper cooperation on matters such as renewable energy, security, research, data protection, disaster management and human rights, even if these talks will always fall short of diplomatic recognition.

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Both sides annually hold trade and investment consultations (recently upgraded to the status of "dialogue") to discuss technology and supply chain issues, particularly on semiconductors. This must-have item has made Taiwan one of the bloc's most important trading partners. Last year, the EU imported €47.3 billion in goods (23% of which were integrated circuits and electronic components) while it exported €30.5 billion, resulting in a deficit of €16.8 billion – in Taiwan's favour.

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