On January 13, 2024, Taiwan will hold its eighth presidential election, a three-way race between Vice President William Lai of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-Ih of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party (KMT), and former Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). This series of blog posts introduces the three candidates’ foreign policy and national security positions.
William Lai (Lai Ching-te), Taiwan’s current vice president, is the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential nominee. Lai, a physician by training, transitioned to a career in politics in the late 1990s, serving in Taiwan’s legislature for over a decade before becoming mayor of Tainan, followed by President Tsai Ing-wen’s premier and then her vice president. Despite challenging Tsai in the DPP’s primary in 2019 as she ran for reelection, Lai has presented himself as a source of continuity who would largely continue Tsai’s foreign policy.
Lai has cast Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election as a choice between democracy and autocracy, arguing that he is the only candidate who can protect Taiwan’s autonomy and its democracy. With China posing a growing threat to Taiwan, Lai has argued that Taiwan needs to strengthen its defenses, draw closer to the United States and other democratic nations, and reduce its economic dependence on China. Lai has attempted to walk back previous pro-independence comments, instead pledging that he would maintain the status quo and not pursue independence. He has left the door open to cross-strait dialogue but has not made the pursuit of communication with Beijing a top priority and has rejected the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which China continues to assert is a prerequisite for resuming official communication.
Navigating Cross-Strait Tensions
Cross-strait issues figure prominently in Lai’s personal narrative and in his political origin story. He has called the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis his “defining moment,” prompting him to enter politics to “help protect this fledgling experiment from those who wished it harm.”
Earlier in his career, Lai called himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence,” which Chinese interlocutors raise as the first (and often only) thing that they associate with Lai. Lai’s pro-independence leanings raised questions in the United States as to whether he could successfully navigate cross-strait relations and maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Responding to such concerns, Lai has moderated his position and vowed to maintain the status quo. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “my commitment to defending peace, our democratic achievements and the cross-strait status quo is stronger than ever.” He has repeated President Tsai’s position that “Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country called the Republic of China.” According to this line of thinking, “It is not necessary to declare independence” because no country declares independence twice. He has attempted to reassure observers that “There are no plans to change the name of our country” and “no such framework exists” for pursuing independence.
In an attempt to signal his goodwill to Beijing, Lai has stated that Xi Jinping is the world leader he would most like to have dinner with. He has also toned down a campaign slogan from “resist China and protect Taiwan” to “peacefully protect Taiwan.”
Lai’s selection of Hsiao Bi-khim as his running mate can also be read as an effort to reassure the United States that he will responsibly handle cross-strait relations. Hsiao served as Taiwan’s representative to the United States from 2020-2023, giving her experience working with both the Trump and Biden administrations. In Washington, she gained a reputation for deftly advocating for Taiwan’s interests while also maintaining a “no surprises” approach to the United States. Since joining Lai’s ticket, Hsiao has emphasized the need to carefully handle cross-strait relations, stating, “we have to manage things in a very prudent, cautious way…We need to have an environment where we have friends who will stand with us.” Implicit in this statement is a recognition that if Taiwan is seen as provoking China, the United States would be less supportive of Taiwan. Hsiao also endorsed the status quo, explaining, “a large portion of our society agree that at the moment, this is the most practical approach to Taiwan’s status.”
Despite such efforts, China harbors deep suspicions of Lai. His statement that his goal is for Taiwan’s president to one day visit the White House was seen in Beijing as evidence that his true views had not changed and that even if he would not pursue de jure independence as president, he would push Taiwan further in that direction. Lai has also rejected the so-called “1992 Consensus,” saying that the formula relinquishes Taiwan’s sovereignty, while Hsiao has suggested it is outdated.
Yet endorsing the “1992 Consensus” remains Beijing’s prerequisite for having official cross-strait communication and it shows no sign of becoming more flexible on this question. Beijing responded to Lai’s Wall Street Journal op-ed by claiming “Mr. Lai’s support for ‘the cross-strait status quo’ is actually for so-called ‘peaceful separation’ and ‘one China, one Taiwan.’ He has betrayed the totality of the Chinese nation.” Far from seeing Hsiao as a moderate figure, China has sanctioned her twice. As such, China would be highly unlikely to reopen cross-strait communication or any form of cooperation with Lai’s administration and would instead increase its military, economic, and diplomatic coercion of Taiwan. Perhaps out of a recognition that Beijing is unlikely to reopen dialogue with his administration, Lai has not made the active pursuit of cross-strait dialogue a part of his campaign platform, in contrast to his two opponents.
Improving Taiwan’s Defenses
Lai and the DPP view improving Taiwan’s defenses as the most effective way to ensure cross-strait peace. As Lai said, “We don’t wish for war and we won’t start one ourselves. But by not fearing war and making preparations during peacetime, this prevents war, and we can have peace.” Hsiao further commented, “We have reiterated that we’re open to dialogue. But we also believe that dialogue is most meaningful when it is conducted on a foundation of strength. That is why we need to invest a lot in building our own strength.”
Consistent with this understanding, over the past seven-plus years the Tsai administration has raised Taiwan’s defense budget from 2 percent to 2.5 percent of GDP, extended conscription from four months to one year, begun long-overdue reforms of the reserve system, prioritized the procurement of asymmetric capabilities such as missiles, and pushed forward the development of indigenous capabilities such as submarines, drones, and mines.
Tellingly, bolstering Taiwan’s defenses is the first pillar of Lai’s “four-pillar plan for peace.” He has committed to “expedite our transition into an asymmetric fighting force, focusing on cost-effective and mobile capabilities” and has vowed to introduce more rigorous training for conscripts. Lai’s defense platform is arguably more ambiguous than his two opponents, but that is likely because voters already know what to expect from his presidency: a continuation of Tsai’s policies. A Lai presidency would thus entail further increases to the defense budget, a commitment to maintaining the extension of conscription, a continued shift to asymmetric capabilities, and the development of a domestic defense industry.
Consolidating Ties With Democracies
Lai views the United States as Taiwan’s most important international partner and strong U.S.-Taiwan relations as the key to ensuring Taiwan’s security. He touts himself as the candidate best positioned to improve U.S.-Taiwan economic and security ties and his emphasis on bolstering Taiwan’s defenses can be seen at least in part as an attempt to acknowledge and appeal to U.S. concerns. He would also seek to improve relations with other democracies, above all Japan, consistent with the DPP’s framing of Taiwan as being on the frontlines of a global battle between democracy and autocracy.
A strong relationship with Japan is critical for Taiwan, in large part because the level of support that Japan would offer to the United States during a conflict over Taiwan could prove decisive in determining whether the United States could successfully defend Taiwan. In recent years, Taiwan’s relationship with Japan has strengthened, and Lai has commented that “Taiwan and Japan are like a family.” He attended former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s funeral in 2022, becoming the highest-level Taiwanese official to visit Japan since Taipei and Tokyo severed diplomatic ties in 1972. He has vowed to pursue security cooperation with Tokyo and also expressed interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the regional trade bloc in which Tokyo plays a leadership role.
Another priority for Lai is to reduce economic reliance on China, which he would pursue by negotiating trade agreements with the United States and other partners, and to work with the United States on secure supply chains. As Hsiao recently noted, “we have to be mindful not to put all our eggs in one basket, as the former government did, by advocating much deeper integration with the Chinese economy. We need to be balanced. We need to diversify.”
Lai has presented himself as a continuation of Tsai’s cross-strait and foreign and defense policies, a president who would focus on maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait while strengthening the island’s defenses and pursuing closer ties to the United States and other democracies. But China deemed Tsai’s approach to cross-strait relations insufficient, famously calling her platform an “incomplete test paper,” and distrusts Lai far more than Tsai. Given that Lai has not signaled any intention of going further than Tsai on cross-strait issues, it is highly unlikely that official cross-strait interactions would resume under a Lai presidency.
Lai’s messaging should therefore be read not as primarily directed at Beijing but instead at Washington. China is all but certain to greet a Lai victory with intensified military, economic, and political pressure. This makes U.S. support critical, and Lai needs to ensure both that there is no daylight between Washington and Taipei and that he is not seen as provoking China. His emphasis on maintaining the cross-strait status quo, selection of Hsiao Bi-khim as his running mate, and commitment to strengthening Taiwan’s defenses should all be seen as part of an effort to signal to Washington that he can be trusted to navigate cross-strait relations. The big question, though, is whether once in office Lai would follow through and continue Tsai’s calm and level-headed approach or revert to his earlier positions.