Lai Ching-te: Taiwan inaugurates new president for ruling party’s historic third term after voters snub China’s warnings | CNN

Lai Ching-te: Taiwan inaugurates new president for ruling party’s historic third term after voters snub China’s warnings | CNN

Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images/File

Lai Ching-te, pictured earlier this month, was inaugurated as Taiwan’s president Monday.


Taipei
CNN
 — 

Lai Ching-te was sworn in as Taiwan’s president Monday, marking the start of a historic third consecutive term for the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has championed democracy in the face of years of growing threats from authoritarian China.

Lai, 64, a former doctor, was inaugurated alongside new Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim, who recently served as Taiwan’s top envoy to the United States.

Both leaders and their party are openly loathed by Beijing for championing Taiwan’s sovereignty. China’s ruling Communist Party says the self-ruling democracy is part of its territory, despite never having controlled it, and has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary.

Lai takes up the mantle from DPP predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, who bolstered the island’s international standing and recognition during her eight years in office.

In his inauguration speech later Monday, Lai is expected to emphasize that he will build on the foundations achieved by Tsai – the island’s first female leader – according to a memo obtained by CNN. He is also expected to project goodwill to China with a message of pursuing peace and prosperity across the Taiwan Strait.

Lai emerged victorious over rivals in the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party and the Taiwan People’s Party in a January election, which was fought over a mixture of livelihood issues as well as the thorny question of how to deal with its giant one-party state neighbor, China, which under leader Xi Jinping has grown more powerful and bellicose.

Voters shrugging off warnings from Beijing that the DPP’s re-election would increase the risk of conflict. The DPP holds the view that Taiwan is a de facto sovereign nation that should bolster defenses against China’s threats and deepen relations with fellow democratic countries, even if that means economic punishment or military intimidation by Beijing.

Lai himself has championed this view – calling his win a “victory for the community of democracies” after the election results were announced.

A soft-spoken political veteran, Lai hails from a more radical wing of the DPP, and was once an open supporter of Taiwan independence – a red line for Beijing.

Though his views have tempered since then, China never forgave him for his comments from six years ago, in which he described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence.”

In the lead-up to the election, Chinese officials repeatedly framed the vote as a choice between “peace and war,” while railing against Lai for inciting conflict.

Lai now says he favors the current status quo, proclaiming that “Taiwan is already an independent sovereign country” so there is “no plan or need” to declare independence.

That deliberately nuanced stance mimics his outgoing predecessor Tsai, Taiwan’s first female president, who was unable to stand again because of term limits.

Under Xi’s strongarm tactics in the twelve years since he rose to power, Taiwan’s public has shifted determinedly away from China. Less than 10% now support an immediate or eventual unification, and less than 3% identify primarily as Chinese.

The majority of Taiwanese want to maintain the current status quo and show no desire to be ruled by Beijing.

Meanwhile, Beijing has ramped up diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taiwan. Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have been at their highest since 1996, when China fired missiles into waters off Taiwan’s coast to intimidate voters ahead of the island’s first free presidential election – after the nascent democracy emerged from decades of its own authoritarian rule.

As Lai formally takes office, official communication between Beijing and Taipei, cut since Tsai took office, is unlikely to resume – with China repeatedly rebuking his offer for talks and denouncing him as a dangerous separatist.

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