Brace yourself for an extended period of uncertainty over Beijing’s next move.
By Stuart Lau
January 14, 2024
The 64-year-old has led the Democratic Progressive Party to a historic third term in power | Annabelle Chih/Getty Images
TAIPEI — Forget Xi Jinping or Joe Biden for a second. Meet Taiwan's next President William Lai, upon whom the fate of U.S.-China relations — and global security over the coming few years — is now thrust.
The 64-year-old, currently Taiwan's vice president, has led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a historic third term in power, a first for any party since Taiwan became a democracy in 1996.
For now, the capital of Taipei feels as calm as ever. For Lai, though, the sense of victory will soon be overshadowed by a looming, extended period of uncertainty over Beijing's next move. Taiwan's Communist neighbor has laid bare its disapproval of Lai, whom Beijing considers the poster boy of the Taiwanese independence movement.
All eyes are now on how the Chinese leader — who less than two weeks ago warned Taiwan to face up to the "historical inevitability" of being absorbed into his Communist nation — will address the other inevitable conclusion: That the Taiwanese public have cast yet another "no" vote on Beijing.
1. Beijing doesn't like him — at all
China has repeatedly lambasted Lai, suggesting that he will be the one bringing war to the island.
As recently as last Thursday, Beijing was trying to talk Taiwanese voters out of electing its nemesis-in-chief into the Baroque-style Presidential Office in Taipei.
"Cross-Strait relations have taken a turn for the worse in the past eight years, from peaceful development to tense confrontation," China's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Chen Binhua said, adding that Lai would now be trying to follow an "evil path" toward "military tension and war."
While Beijing has never been a fan of the DPP, which views China as fundamentally against Taiwan's interests , the personal disgust for Lai is also remarkable.
Part of that stems from a 2017 remark, in which Lai called himself a "worker for Taiwanese independence," which has been repeatedly cited by Beijing as proof of his secessionist beliefs.
Without naming names, Chinese President Xi harshly criticized those promoting Taiwan independence in a speech in 2021.
Without naming names, Chinese President Xi harshly criticized those promoting Taiwan independence | Mark Schiefelbein-Pool/Getty Images
"Secession aimed at Taiwan independence is the greatest obstacle to national reunification and a grave danger to national rejuvenation," Xi said. "Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end, and will be disdained by the people and sentenced by the court of history."
2. All eyes are on the next 4 months
Instability is expected to be on the rise over the next four months, until Lai is formally inaugurated on May 20.
No one knows how bad this could get, but Taiwanese officials and foreign diplomats say they don't expect the situation to be as tense as the aftermath of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island in 2022.
Already, days before the election, China sent several spy balloons to monitor Taiwan, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry. On the trade front, China was also stepping up the pressure, announcing a possible move to reintroduce tariffs on some Taiwanese products. Cases of disinformation and electoral manipulation have also been unveiled by Taiwanese authorities.
Those developments, combined, constitute what Taipei calls hybrid warfare — which now risks further escalation given Beijing's displeasure with the new president.
No one knows how bad this could get, but Taiwanese officials and foreign diplomats say they don't expect the situation to be as tense as the aftermath of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island in 2022 | Annabelle Chih/Getty Images
3. Lai has to tame his independent instinct
In a way, he has already.
Speaking at the international press conference last week, Lai said he had no plan to declare independence if elected to the presidency.
DPP insiders say they expect Lai to stick to outgoing Tsai Ing-wen's approach, without saying things that could be interpreted as unilaterally changing the status quo.
They also point to the fact that Lai chose as vice-presidential pick Bi-khim Hsiao, a close confidante with Tsai and former de facto ambassador to Washington. Hsiao has developed close links with the Biden administration, and will play a key role as a bridge between Lai and the U.S.
4. Taiwan will follow international approach
The U.S., Japan and Europe are expected to take precedence in Lai's diplomatic outreach, while relations with China will continue to be negative.
Throughout election rallies across the island, the DPP candidate repeatedly highlighted the Tsai government's efforts at diversifying away from the trade reliance on China, shifting the focus to the three like-minded allies.
Lai has to tame his independent instinct | Annabelle Chih/Getty Images
Southeast Asia has been another top destination for these readjusted trade flows, DPP has said.
According to Taiwanese authorities, Taiwan's exports to China and Hong Kong last year dropped 18.1 percent compared to 2022, the biggest decrease since they started recording this set of statistics in 1982.
In contrast, Taiwanese exports to the U.S. and Europe rose by 1.6 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, with the trade volumes reaching all-time highs.
However, critics point out that China continues to be Taiwan's biggest trading partner, with many Taiwanese businesspeople living and working in the mainland.
5. Lai might face an uncooperative parliament
While vote counting continues, there's a high chance Lai will be dealing with a divided parliament, the Legislative Yuan.
Before the election, the Kuomintang (KMT) party vowed to form a majority with Taiwan People's Party in the Yuan, thereby rendering Lai's administration effectively a minority government.
While that could pose further difficulties for Lai to roll out policies provocative to Beijing, a parliament in opposition also might be a problem when it comes to Taiwan's much-needed defense spending.
"A divided parliament is very bad news for defense. KMT has proven that they can block defense spending, and the TPP will also try to provide what they call oversight, and make things much more difficult," said Syaru Shirley Lin, who chairs the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation, a Taipei-based policy think tank.
"Although all three parties said they wanted to boost defense, days leading up to the election ... I don't think that really tells you what's going to happen in the legislature," Lin added. "There's going to be a lot of policy trading."