Taiwan President-Elect Lai Ching-te Has Steered the Island Toward Democracy and Away from China

AP Photo/Louise Delmotte
Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, left, celebrates his victory with running mate Bi-khim Hsiao in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s president-elect, has vowed to safeguard the island’s de-facto independence from China and further align it with other democracies.

Lai, 64, emerged victorious in the election Saturday on the island of 23 million people that China claims as its own. He is currently vice president with the Democratic Progressive Party, which has rejected China’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan.

As he faced his supporters Saturday night, Lai vowed Taiwan would “continue to walk side by side with democracies from around the world.”

“We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy,” he said.

Lai has vowed to strengthen the island’s defense and economy, which depends heavily on trade with China. He has also made an effort to soften his earlier stance as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence.”

At the same time, the new president has expressed desire to restart dialogue with China, which has refused to communicate with the island’s leaders in recent years.

“We are ready and willing to engage to show more for the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Peace is priceless and war has no winners,” he said earlier in the week.

His chances of success in talking to China, however, are close to null, analysts say.

“Beijing has repeatedly criticized not just DPP more broadly, but has actually criticized Lai Ching-te by name,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a fellow with U.S. think tank Atlantic Council. “It’s something that Beijing usually only does when they think there’s very little chance of the two sides ever repairing ties.”

Instead, Sung added, China will likely resort to a “maximum pressure campaign,” including military and economic coercion.

As vice president, Lai helped promote Taiwan’s interests internationally.

He stopped in New York and San Francisco on his way to Latin America in August in a move that was criticized by Beijing.

That visit was part of a diplomatic mission to Paraguay, one of a dozen countries that still maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Many countries, including the U.S., formally recognize the People’s Republic of China but maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan.

Lai said at the time that it was important to meet foreign counterparts to convey the message that Taiwan “persists in its democracy, human rights and freedom and actively takes part in international affairs.”

U.S. President Joe Biden was asked about the election in Taiwan as he left the White House on Saturday to spend the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

“We do not support independence,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai, and also “the Taiwan people for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process.”

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson said he will be asking the chairs of the relevant House committees to lead a delegation to Taipei following Lai’s inauguration in May.

Lai has pointed to China’s firing of missiles and other military drills in the Taiwan Strait in 1996 as a “defining moment” that drew him into politics.

In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in July, he vowed to maintain the status quo, saying that was in the best interests of Taiwan and international community. He also drew a line between Taiwan and Ukraine and the rise of authoritarianism globally “have awakened the international community to the fragility of democracy.”

In that article, he called for a buildup of Taiwan’s military deterrence capabilities, strengthening economic security, forging partnerships with democracies worldwide and “steady and principled cross-strait leadership.”

Lai has held several prominent jobs in addition to vice president, including premier, legislator and mayor of the southern city of Tainan. He originally is a physician and has a master’s in public health from Harvard.

During his and President Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure, Taiwan increased arms acquisitions from the United States, which is bound by its law to provide the island with weapons needed to protect itself.

His running mate is former U.S. envoy Bi-khim Hsiao.

China issued a strong rebuke in 2022 when Lai became the highest-ranking Taiwanese official in decades to visit nearby Japan to attend the funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.