The recent electoral victory of Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te in Taiwan’s 2024 general election has set many to worrying whether Lai, once inaugurated as the island’s head of government on May 20, will make radical moves toward independence. They worry that the Taiwan Strait will become a new flashpoint for conflict and that cross-strait relations will turn from under control to out of control — or even collision — with the Chinese mainland.
For his infamous claim that he is a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence,” Lai has been called an enhanced edition of Lee Teng-hui, an upgraded edition of Chen Shui-bian and a radical edition of Tsai Ing-wen.
Lai’s election victory has cast a dark shadow over cross-strait ties, and will have a tremendous destructive impact on peace and stability.
That is because he is driven, first of all, by the ideology of Taiwan independence. Chen Shui-bian was merely a speculative independence seeker — one who used the notion of Taiwan independence as an election tool. But Lai is an open and unabashed independence seeker. He never conceals this and, in fact, takes pride in it. Tsai, during her tenure, backed independence but without saying so, accelerating a so-called “soft” form that featured “cultural independence.”
Lai will very likely both say and do, not only substantially promoting independence but also openly harping on “the myth of Taiwan independence.” He may even concoct something akin to Lee’s “special two states” or Chen’s “one state on each side” theory.
Second, deep-green forces will take advantage of him. Lai is known as the “golden grandson of Taiwan independence,” and deep-green forces on the island have high hopes. They believe he can take bigger strides down the independence road. If Lai’s pro-independence policies are considered to be less radical than anticipated, the deep-green forces will certainly launch fierce attacks on him, pressing him to make rash moves.
Third, Lai’s lame-duck minority government has some practical needs. While Lai won the election, it was only by a slight margin, a little more than 40 percent of the vote. More important, the DPP lost majority control of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, which mean’s the new leader is a lame-duck before assumes office.
Lai will also face various other challenges. As soon as he was elected, Nauru announced it would cut off what it had styled as diplomatic relations. Many on the island considered this to be a slap in Lai’s face. Sandwiched between domestic and external troubles, Lai may cozy up to the base of the green camp on his own initiative, stage some shows about independence and consolidate his constituency to avoid a collapse of his approval ratings.
Internal and external trouble
At the bottom of his heart, Lai wants to walk the same paths toward Taiwan independence that Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian had followed, but things on both sides of the strait have undergone fundamental changes, subjecting Lai to additional constraints and making it impossible for him to recklessly pursue his dream. Even Chen had acknowledged the impossibility of independence. Lai won’t be able to achieve what Chen failed to accomplish.
First, mainstream public opinion in Taiwan strongly opposes independence. People on the island want peace, not war; development, not turbulence; happy lives, not misery; cross-strait exchanges, not animosity; dialogue, not confrontation. If Lai goes too far in seeking independence, there will no doubt be great turbulence across the strait, which will inevitably invite strong reactions from the island’s people.
Second, the United States worries about being dragged into a possible conflict with Beijing. Amid all the global turmoil of 2024, there is no sign of the Russia-Ukraine conflict coming to an end, and gunfire and bombings persist in the Middle East. Under such circumstances, the U.S. does not want the Taiwan Strait to become a new flashpoint. America has its hands full already.
But the United States frets that Lai could become a troublemaker as Chen Shui-bian was — so much so that the moment Lai was elected, U.S. President Joe Biden openly stated that America doesn’t support Taiwan independence. The U.S. State Department also restated its commitment to the “one China” policy, which was an obvious warning to Lai.
Third, the mainland is resolutely and forcefully opposed to any moves in Taiwan toward independence. Compared with the Lee era, the comparative strengths of the two sides of the strait have undergone earth-shaking changes, and the mainland is more determined and more capable of stopping any separatist moves. Should Lai attempt to violate the mainland’s bottom line, it will definitely end in self-destruction.
A possible orientation
Lai on one hand wants to implement his plan for independence, but on the other faces multiple internal and external pressures. So he likely will walk a tight rope and try to find a balance.
First, Lai would reject the 1992 Consensus, which he has been denigrating for a long time, not to mention never acknowledging that both sides of the strait belong to one China. At the beginning of her tenure, Tsai had acknowledged the consensus as a historical fact; Lai, however, will be more regressive than Tsai and will likely refuse to acknowledge even that much.
Second, he will refuse to forsake Taiwan independence as a plank in the party platform. This has long been the DPP’s fundamental weakness, as there have always been voices within the party to have it frozen as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the push for independence has sowed a significant potential risk for cross-strait peace, which is why (until the recent elections in Taiwan) many American scholars had written articles calling on the DPP to abandon the idea. Lai has turned a deaf ear despite all such appeals.
Third, Lai may return to the Resolution Regarding Taiwan’s Future. The DPP passed this measure in 1999, and it has since been enshrined by the party as a divine tablet. In 2023, Lai and some people on his campaign team on multiple occasions trumpeted the resolution’s value. In the future, Lai will likely handle cross-strait ties in accordance with that document.
Taiwan now stands at the crossroads of war and peace. It is deemed by many to be the most dangerous place in the world. Lai’s policy on cross-strait relations will be a major variable for the island going forward. If Lai believes that Beijing cannot or will not do much about whatever he does — even if he rashly pursues independence — war might be unavoidable. But if he can make timely adjustments, there may be a turn for the better.
Lai’s attitude on the campaign trail had been radical. But he seems to have made an adjustment after his election victory, as he has said he wants to “preserve the status quo.” There still is a window of time before Lai’s inauguration in May. During this period, he should listen to public opinion and make fundamental changes to his rhetoric for the well-being of the 23 million people of Taiwan. This is the only way for him to maneuver a good beginning for his governance and to bring new opportunities for socioeconomic progress.