Analyzing Lai Ching-te’s Inaugural Address: More Continuity Than Difference
from Asia Unbound, Asia Program, and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Analyzing Lai Ching-te’s Inaugural Address: More Continuity Than Difference

In his inaugural address, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te signaled broad continuity on cross-strait issues. China, however, is likely to respond with increased pressure. 
Taiwan's new President Lai Ching-te delivers his inaugural speech in Taipei, Taiwan on May 20, 2024.
Taiwan's new President Lai Ching-te delivers his inaugural speech in Taipei, Taiwan on May 20, 2024. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

On May 20, Lai Ching-te assumed the presidency in Taiwan and gave an inaugural address scrutinized in Beijing, Washington, and capitals around the world. The speech provided the most authoritative signal to date of his approach to cross-strait relations. The core question for observers: would a Lai administration depart from the course set by his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen? 

The speech gave a clear answer: Lai signaled broad continuity with Tsai and committed to maintain the status quo. He also called for dialogue with Beijing and demonstrated an openness to resuming cross-strait tourism and student exchanges. Even so, Beijing denounced Lai’s speech in particularly harsh language. That reflects China’s concerns about Lai’s history on cross-strait issues. But it also reflects disappointment that Lai departed in some places from Tsai, for instance by not explicitly pledging to conduct cross-strait relations in accordance with the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, which embodies a one-China framework.  

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In the period ahead, cross-strait issues will remain a point of contention between Taipei and Beijing, with official dialogue channels all but certain to remain closed. If both sides come to believe their own restraint will not be reciprocated, then the conditions will be set for a vicious cycle. For example, if Beijing responds to Lai’s efforts to signal continuity in his inaugural address with military and economic pressure, and if Taipei then concludes there is little reason for restraint on political issues, cross-strait tensions will increase. Careful signaling, and deeper dialogue—likely through unofficial channels or even through intermediaries—will be needed to avoid such an outcome. 

Parsing Lai’s Inaugural Address 

In his inaugural speech, Lai sought to reassure audiences that he would be a source of stability and continuity on cross-strait issues and would not provoke Beijing or seek to change the status quo. Despite frustrations within Taiwan on domestic issues – rising housing prices, stagnating wages, and growing youth unemployment – Tsai still left office as the only president since Taiwan’s democratization to enjoy an approval rating of over 50 percent and is widely credited with ably managing cross-strait relations. It is thus little wonder that Lai sought to embrace and build on her legacy. His personnel appointments in senior national security positions similarly project continuity. 

In his address, Lai regularly returned to the language of continuity and stability. “Peace is the only option,” he stressed, “and prosperity, gained through lasting peace and stability, is our objective.” Lai called Taiwan’s leaders “pilots for peace” and indicated he would “neither yield nor provoke” and would instead “maintain the status quo.” Elsewhere in his speech, Lai spoke of providing “stable and principled cross-strait leadership.” Such reassurances are important given Lai’s 2017 statement that he was a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” and questions in Beijing about his intentions. 

To that end, Lai mentioned the “Republic of China” over a dozen times – more than Tsai did in her last inaugural address – and pledged to lead “in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution system.” Beijing took exception to Lai’s statement that “the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other.” That phrase has not appeared in an inaugural address before, though it was a formulation Tsai previously included in high-level speeches, and likely does not indicate any change in policy. 

Lai also included conciliatory language toward Beijing. He encouraged it to “choose dialogue over confrontation, exchange over containment, and under the principles of parity and dignity, engage in cooperation with the legal government chosen by Taiwan’s people.” Notably, he stressed that, “this can start from the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis, and enrollment of degree students in Taiwanese institutions.” China has pointed to the lack of cross-strait tourism and student exchanges as evidence of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s lack of commitment to productive cross-strait relations, and Lai’s signal that he was open to practical exchanges was an effort to demonstrate goodwill toward Beijing. 

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Lai specifically referenced Tsai’s “Four Commitments” – her unique formulation on cross-strait policy. Beijing likely sees the framework’s first-ever appearance in an inaugural address as escalatory. But Tsai has referenced it in several high-level speeches, and her team had described it as a stakeholder agnostic formulation with propositions acceptable to all of Taiwan rather than one grounded entirely in DPP documents. Lai’s inclusion of it, rather than introducing a completely original approach, was probably intended to be stabilizing and again signal continuity.  

There were some areas, however, where Lai put his own imprint on cross-strait policies. He declared, “Some call this land the Republic of China, some call it the Republic of China Taiwan, and some, Taiwan; but whichever of these names we ourselves or our international friends choose to call our nation, we will resonate and shine all the same.” This could be interpreted as a subtle way of signaling that Lai does not intend to pursue steps that would change Taiwan’s official name – unlike prior president Chen Shui-bian – by essentially setting the issue of nomenclature aside and accepting that Taiwanese citizens have different and equally legitimate views on this question. Beijing could choose to see this as a reassuring evolution. At the same time, though, putting the name “Taiwan” on the same plane as the “Republic of China,” or as an alternative to the “Republic of China,” will raise concerns in Beijing and be seen as a departure from precedent. The fact that a statement could be taken as simultaneously escalatory and de-escalatory highlights the need for greater communication between Beijing and Taipei, whether official or unofficial, to help explain intentions. 

Putting Lai’s Speech in Perspective 

Lai’s cross-strait platform did not go as far as Tsai’s first inaugural address on certain elements of cross-strait issues. In her 2016 inaugural, Tsai acknowledged the so-called “1992 consensus” without explicitly defining or endorsing it, going perhaps as far as any DPP leader is likely to go. “In 1992,” she said, “the two institutions representing each side across the Strait (the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits), through communication and negotiations, arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings. It was done in a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences. I respect this historical fact.” In that same speech, she stressed that, “since 1992, over twenty years of interactions and negotiations across the Strait have enabled and accumulated outcomes which both sides must collectively cherish and sustain; and it is based on such existing realities and political foundations that the stable and peaceful development of the cross-Strait relationship must be continuously promoted.” And as a matter of policy, she was clear that, “the new government will conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.”  

Beijing did not give Tsai much credit for these statements, choosing instead to base their expectations on the policies of her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, who had fully endorsed the “1992 consensus,” a term one of his key advisors invented in 2000. Accordingly, in her second inaugural address, she did not repeat that detailed construction. But she did commit that she would “continue to handle cross-strait affairs according to the Constitution of the Republic of China and the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area.” 

However, Lai did not explicitly state that cross-strait affairs would be conducted in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution and the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, both of which embody a one-China framework. He also did not even elliptically reference the “1992 consensus.” This is likely due to a calculation by Lai and his team that there was little to be gained by attempting to find a workaround to the “1992 consensus” in this first articulation of his cross-strait policy as president. Since Beijing famously rejected Tsai’s formulation as an “incomplete test paper” and has an even darker view of Lai than it had of Tsai, his team likely concluded nothing he would do would be enough at this stage. From Beijing’s perspective, however, the omission of these terms could be seen as a more consequential signal that Lai is embarking on a different cross-strait approach, overshadowing the areas where he stressed continuity. 

Notably, Tsai refrained from directly criticizing China and certain PRC provocations in her past inaugural addresses, but Lai did not hesitate to do so. He instead declared that “China’s military actions and gray-zone coercion are considered the greatest strategic challenges to global peace and stability.” He called on China “to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan” and argued that even as Taiwan pursues peace “we must not harbor any delusions.” He noted that, “so long as China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, all of us in Taiwan ought to understand, that even if we accept the entirety of China’s position and give up our sovereignty, China’s ambition to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear.” Accordingly, he concluded, “in face of the many threats and attempts of infiltration from China, we must demonstrate our resolution to defend our nation, and we must also raise our defense awareness and strengthen our legal framework for national security.” Lai’s decision to include this language likely reflects the changed strategic context, including China’s military response to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, and the desire to ensure that Beijing—rather than Taipei—is seen by the international community as the provocateur in any cross-strait crisis.  

Beijing Responds 

China has made its distrust of Lai well known throughout his career. During the presidential campaign, the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) warned that the choice facing Taiwan’s voters was between war and peace, with a vote for Lai tantamount to choosing the former. After Lai’s speech, the TAO’s spokesman accused him of “flagrantly promoting separatist fallacies and inciting cross-strait confrontation,” heated language that represents a notable escalation compared with how Chinese authorities reacted to Tsai’s past inaugural addresses. A commentary in state-run media accused Lai of filling his speech with “deceitful political lies, aggressively promoting the separatist ideology of ‘Taiwan independence,’ maliciously inciting cross-strait antagonism, and advocating for independence through reliance on foreign support and military means.” 

At the same time, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stuck to standard talking points on Taiwan, stating that “anyone who attempts to challenge the one-China principle will inevitably fail” and that separatist attempts for “Taiwan independence” are doomed to fail and posed the greatest threat to cross-strait stability. 

Challenges Ahead 

Lai faces an array of challenges that will test his team. Foremost is the risk of a vicious cycle of escalation between Beijing and Taipei. Beijing may have written Lai off long ago, refusing to believe that he could be a trusted interlocutor who will exercise adequate restraint. Lai, who undoubtedly believes that he has acted in a restrained manner that has gone unnoticed in Beijing, may deviate from Tsai’s approach at least rhetorically, seeing little reason to adjust to accommodate Beijing’s preferences.  

In recent months, Beijing has acted in ways that might accelerate such a vicious cycle. Public reporting indicates Beijing has broken longstanding precedent with entries into Taiwan’s claimed contiguous zone. That decision suggests Beijing may not appreciate responsible approaches by Washington and Taipei, which in turn may see little reason to exercise restraint of their own in response. 

Lai also faces a challenging environment at home. His 40 percent vote share was the lowest of any winning candidate since 2000, which similarly saw a three-way race. For the first time in sixteen years, no party controls the legislature with an outright majority, and the DPP is now a minority given the de facto coalition between the two main opposition parties: the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). In this more uncertain political environment, Beijing may look for opportunities to manipulate Taiwan’s politics to advance its aims. It hopes Lai will be a one-term president and likely believes it can increase the likelihood that this comes to pass, and that may reduce its incentive to seek stability.  

For the United States, the key question will be whether a vicious cycle can be avoided. If each side exercises restraint, and if that restraint is acknowledged and reciprocated by the other side, there may be a path to preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. That puts pressure on all sides—Beijing, Taipei, and Washington—to work to manage these complex dynamics.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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