- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2024

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SEOUL, South Korea — Lai Ching-te, inaugurated as Taiwan’s president on Monday, urged China to respect the island’s democratic choices and reminded the world of his country’s significance.

Mr. Lai’s election victory in January handed the liberal Democratic Progressive Party an unprecedented third consecutive presidency. He succeeds Tsai Ing-wen, who served two terms.

Of Taiwan’s three major political machines, the liberal DPP maintains the strongest stance against Beijing, which insists the island belongs to China.

Mr. Lai, 64, a former physician also known as William Lai, will have his hands full.

Under DPP rule, Taiwan’s 23 million people have faced a multifaceted campaign of Chinese intimidation. Reinforcing local resilience will be a core task.

Another challenge will be keeping regional and global democracies on Taiwan’s side. Many are tightly interlinked with the economic giant China.

So far, so familiar, but Mr. Lai faces one issue Ms. Tsai did not: opposition control of the Legislative Yuan.

Lai defies Beijing

In his inaugural speech, Mr. Lai spoke on a stage in front of marching soldiers and a military band with an overflight of fighter jets.

“I am determined to strengthen the nation,” he said. He thanked citizens for “refusing to be swayed by external forces, for resolutely defending democracy.”

Messaging Beijing, he said he sought a return of Chinese tourists and students.

On a stronger note, he said, “I hope that China will face the reality of [Taiwan’s] existence [and] respect the choices of the people of Taiwan. In face of the many threats and attempts of infiltration from China, we must demonstrate our resolution to defend our nation.”

In a war of nerves, Taiwan is constantly probed by surrounding Chinese warships, aircraft and weather balloons. Angry diplomacy and cyberintelligence campaigns add further pressure.

Chinese forces are inching closer.

Since then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in 2022, Beijing’s assets have ceased to respect the Taiwan Strait’s median line and have routinely crossed it.

After the deadly sinking this year of a Chinese boat off the coast of Kinmen, a Taiwanese island close to the mainland, Chinese vessels have increased activity. Unknown saboteurs cut underwater cables carrying the internet to Matsu, another island.

Though Washington officially acknowledges Beijing’s “One China” policy, it is increasingly arming and coordinating with Taiwanese forces. President Biden has reversed customary strategic ambiguity by stating that the United States would fight for Taiwan.

Tempting democracies onside

Other democracies are more reluctant to voice support for Taipei for fear of irking economic superpower China.

“Regardless of the pretext or the banner under which it is pursued, the push for Taiwan independence is destined to fail,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

Australian, British, German, Japanese, Singaporean, South Korean and Ukrainian delegations attended the inauguration. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led the U.S. delegation.

Mr. Lai dangled some carrots related to Taiwan’s global technology stature. Semiconductors are central to digitization, and Taiwanese firms make the world’s most advanced.

Taiwan needs the world, just as the world needs Taiwan,” Mr. Lai said. “Taiwan has already mastered advanced semiconductor manufacturing, and we stand at the center of the AI revolution.”

Taiwanese investments in southern China make legacy chips, but the island’s companies are building highly advanced factories in Japan and the United States.

Mr. Lai outlined expanding ambitions.

“We are a key player in supply chains for global democracies. … We in Taiwan, a ‘silicon island,’ must do all we can to expedite Taiwan’s transformation into an “AI island,’” he said.

He seeks to reinforce supply chain centrality by making the island a hub for drone and satellite technologies, “bringing Taiwan’s space and aerospace industries squarely into the international sphere.”

Stormy seas ahead

Mr. Lai faces domestic constraints. The loss of a parliamentary majority spells trouble in Taiwan’s often-rowdy political culture.

“This is the first time in 16 years that no party has an absolute majority, Mr. Lai said.

The main opposition Kuomintang, KMT, and the third-force Taiwan People’s Party, or TPP, have been cooperating to block DPP legislation. They are also pushing for greater parliamentary investigative powers of the government, which some criticize as unconstitutional.

Tensions boiled over Friday. One lawmaker reportedly rolled up for debates wearing a military helmet, and another was hospitalized after falling off a platform as brawls broke out in the Yuan.

“I am sure all leaders find it tough, but Lai’s must be one of the most difficult jobs in the world,” said Joel Atkinson, a China watcher who teaches and researches regional politics in Seoul. “He has four audiences: his own party, the public, partners like the U.S. and Japan, and then Beijing.”

Taiwan has broad bipartisan U.S. political support, translating into backdoor influence over Mr. Lai.

“He is obviously seen as a nemesis-type figure by the Chinese Communist Party, but I think the shuttle diplomacy between U.S. congressional visitors to Taiwan and engagement by the State Department with the DPP suggests he is being told that the U.S. would look dimly at any gestures toward changing the status quo,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based fellow with Pacific Forum. “I have not seen any signs he will suddenly turn into an independence firebrand.”

Mr. Lai’s four-year term will encompass 2027, when Chinese forces have been ordered to be capable of an invasion.

Still, developments in the past two years offer Mr. Lai some breathing room.

The 2023 deployment of U.S. troops to the northern Philippines and Tokyo’s ongoing fortification of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands make any Chinese attempt to force related straits and encircle Taiwan risky.

“The challenge of bypassing the First Island Chain is enormous,” said Mr. Neill, an expert on China’s People’s Liberation Army. “My guess is that the PLA is readying for war inside the First Island Chain rather than transiting those straits.”

That means Taiwanese generals, unconcerned with their island’s flanks, could concentrate forces on its China-facing coast.

Though attackers would outnumber Taiwan’s navy and air forces, they would have to fight through an echelon defense: mines in the strait, dug-in tanks on beaches, artillery on high ground and predator drones swarming the clouds.

Yet China’s mass is undeniable. Pundits may be focused on flagship assets, such as nuclear warheads and aircraft carriers, rather than its growing number of lower-profile amphibious assault ships.

“There is a whole range of naval hardware, and if you couple that with the rate that they are churning out large tonnage. It is incredible,” Mr. Neill said. “Sheer weight of numbers will pose a real challenge.”

• Andrew Salmon can be reached at asalmon@washingtontimes.com.

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