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New Posture, New Crises in Taiwan

Jun 14, 2024
  • Zhong Houtao

    Associate Professor, School of National Security, University of International Relations

Since Lai Ching-te assumed office as Taiwan’s new leader, there has been a new dynamism on the island — notably more than in the Tsai Ing-wen years — and new crises.

Locally, Lai actively cultivates populism, which will only worsen Taiwan’s political divide and weigh on socioeconomic development. As for the Chinese mainland, Lai clamors that the two sides of the strait “are not under the jurisdiction of each other” — a view that will further undermine peace and stability. With respect to the United States, the trust deficit continues to grow, and Lai may try to get rid of American control altogether. Influenced by the cumulative outcome of multiple factors, Lai might get reckless and turn from merely advocating Taiwan independence toward being an active war maker, which is worth serious attention.

Resorting to populism has planted major hidden risks for socioeconomic development in Taiwan. Although Lai has become Taiwan’s new leader, he only won 40 percent of the people’s votes, so the legitimacy of his rule faces serious tests. To avoid becoming a lame duck early, Lai has proactively manipulated populist feelings. He launched the so-called “Operation Blue Magpie”; instigated the green camp siege of the Legislative Yuan, attempting to show his strength to Han Guoyu, its leader and to the opposition Kuomintang, the largest party. Lai’s gains from such manipulations may encourage him to go further down the path of populism, which will introduce major variables into Taiwan society:

It may exacerbate confrontation between the authorities and the general public. Theoretically, the Democratic Progressive Party, as the ruling party, should join hands with all major opposition parties and work together for the island’s socioeconomic development. Yet it has done the opposite, attempting to take advantage of populist feelings and attack such opposition parties as the Kuomintang in the belief that the DPP would stay in power indefinitely. This will inevitably invite strong backlash from the opposition, and the island’s political circles will sink in an endless downward spiral of political infighting.

It will further divide public opinion. As a result of such factors as traditional Chinese culture, the general public in Taiwan has been known for fine individual qualities, which explains the saying that “The most beautiful scenery in Taiwan is the people.” With rising populism over the past few years, however, there has been a fierce standoff between the blue and green camps, and Taiwan society has been torn apart.

It may drag down economic development. Taiwan, in the 1990s, was called “the head of the four little dragons of Asia.” But socioeconomic progress has stagnated since then, with a meager 1.4 percent GDP growth in 2023. Judging from the personnel layout and policy plan of the Lai team, he is in no mood for promoting socio-economic progress, instead he has indulged in a political struggle, which will trigger more intensive infighting and further undermine the island’s motivation for socioeconomic development.

Kick-starting a radical move for Taiwan independence may cast a heavy shadow on cross-strait peace. Lai’s inaugural speech on May 20 showed he is turning from the covert, gradual, flexible approach toward the notion of independence — as in the Tsai years — to an overt, rapid, radical one. Going forward, he may continue to double down, resulting in greater turbulence in interactions with Beijing:  

He is driven by the idea of Taiwan independence. In his May 20 speech, Lai openly claimed that the Republic of China is in a state of independent sovereignty and that the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not under the jurisdiction of each other. This completely exposing Lai’s true colors on Taiwan independence, and he has thus been called an enhanced edition of Lee Teng-hui, an upgraded edition of Chen Shui-bien and a radical version of Tsai Ing-wen.

He has been hijacked by the base of the green camp. Known as the “golden grandson” of Taiwan independence, Lai carries extremely high hopes for the Taiwan independence fundamentalists, who are convinced that he can accomplish “jurisprudential Taiwan independence,” a project that predecessors Lee, Chen and Tsai all failed to complete. Hardcore supporters of Taiwan independence will inevitably push Lai to travel further down a more dangerous road. 

He has electoral needs. The DPP has lost its position as the largest party in the Legislative Yuan, and Lai faces a situation of smaller government with greater opposition. In the island’s 22 counties and cities, the DPP claims only six seats for local leaders, having no way to control local political resources. In the 2026 elections for local leaders, as well as the 2028 general elections, both Lai and the DPP will face unprecedented challenges. There have even been predictions by outsiders that Lai may serve only one term. Under such electoral pressure, he will tend to slide further toward the notion of Taiwan independence. 

Meanwhile, as strategic mutual suspicion deepens, the United States is afraid Lai may drag it into trouble. The U.S. sent a fairly high-level delegation to Lai’s inauguration on May 20, and the two sides had close interactions, but each has its own calculations and worries underneath a projected image of harmony:

The United States remains suspicious of Lai. As soon as he assumed office, Lai began preaching his “two states” theory, which surprised many in American political and academic circles who worry he may get even more adventurous in the future, go further down the path advocating independence and even drag the U.S. into a whirlpool of conflict. In this case, Taiwan will turn from being Washington’s strategic chess piece into a strategic burden.

Lai remains dissatisfied with the U.S. According to reports by multiple media outlets in Taiwan, to practice oversight over Lai, the U.S. has carefully installed pro-U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim as Lai’s deputy. The main purpose is to have firsthand information about each and every move Lai makes. For a period of time, present and former U.S. government officials visiting Taiwan would meet with Hsiao before meeting with Lai. This also makes Lai think that because the U.S. has no respect for him, there’s no need for him to continue to play nice.

Lai sees U.S. command as weakening. Lately, the Netanyahu government in Israel has continuously intensified military operations in Gaza in defiance of repeated U.S. warnings, indicating that U.S. influence on even hardcore allies is gradually declining. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly acknowledged that Palestine is a country at the 21st Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, revealing obvious divergence with U.S. views on the Middle East. To the Lai team, these all indicate that the decline of U.S. control in global affairs has already become an indisputable fact, and Taiwan need not follow every order from Washington. In this way, Taiwan independence will finally find a stage. 


Lai has repeatedly highlighted his identity as a worker for Taiwan independence, exposing his true colors as a radical immediately upon taking office. Without effective constraints and controls, this may light the fuse of cross-strait conflict. It therefore deserves high vigilance on every stakeholder’s part.

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