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May 19, 2024

Lai Ching-te Inherits a Strong Foreign Policy Legacy from Tsai Ing-wen

As Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te prepares to take office, he inherits a robust foreign policy legacy from outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen. In a symbolic campaign ad, Tsai and Lai were seen driving together, with Tsai eventually handing over the wheel to Lai, emphasizing the continuity of her policies under his leadership.

Lai, who assumes office on Monday, faces the delicate task of balancing Taiwan’s informal alliance with the United States while striving to maintain peace with China, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reclaimed by force if necessary. This tightrope walk has been a hallmark of Tsai’s presidency, during which she navigated Taiwan through significant geopolitical challenges and domestic reforms.

Tsai’s tenure, spanning eight years, will be remembered for her steadfast defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty, her efforts to modernize the island’s military, and her role in transforming Taiwan into a reliable partner for the U.S. and other democracies. She also made history as Taiwan’s first female president, successfully leading the island through the COVID-19 pandemic, legalizing same-sex marriage, and initiating critical domestic reforms despite political opposition.

Throughout her presidency, Tsai maintained high approval ratings, a testament to her effective leadership. A recent TVBS poll showed that 42 percent of respondents were satisfied with her performance, a significant improvement compared to her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, who left office with a 23 percent approval rating.

A notable aspect of Tsai’s presidency was the shift in Taiwanese identity. A majority of the population now identifies as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, preferring a government separate from Beijing. This shift has been pivotal in Tsai’s divergence from the China-friendly policies of the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s previous ruling party. Under Tsai, Taiwan has distanced itself from Beijing, with Tsai refusing to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, which states that Taiwan is part of One China. Despite this, she left the door open for dialogue, albeit not on Beijing’s terms.

Beijing’s response to Tsai’s stance was to increase military and economic pressure on Taiwan, regularly sending warships and military jets near the island and intensifying efforts to diplomatically isolate Taiwan by luring away its few remaining allies. Tsai countered by diversifying trade relationships and boosting military spending, including the development of indigenous submarines. Her approach raised Taiwan’s international profile and strengthened its ties with the global community, despite the growing pressure from China.

Lai Ching-te, who served as vice president during Tsai’s second term, is expected to continue her foreign policy trajectory. Initially perceived as a firebrand advocating for Taiwanese independence, Lai has moderated his stance over the years, now supporting the status quo and the possibility of talks with Beijing. His main challenge on the international front may come from the uncertainty in U.S. policy, especially if there is a shift in administration.

Domestically, Lai will build on Tsai’s reforms, although political gridlock poses a significant challenge. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which Lai and Tsai belong to, has lost its majority in the legislature, complicating efforts to pass critical legislation, including national defense budgets. Tsai’s domestic achievements, such as legalizing same-sex marriage, pension and labor reforms, and military modernization, have set a high bar for Lai. However, her mixed success in these areas and the DPP’s poor performance in local elections highlight the difficulties Lai will face.

Tsai’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic was initially praised for keeping the virus at bay, but later criticized for inadequate rapid testing infrastructure. These mixed results contributed to the DPP’s setbacks in the 2022 local elections and Tsai’s subsequent resignation as party chairwoman.

In summary, Lai Ching-te’s presidency will likely be defined by his ability to uphold Tsai’s foreign policy achievements while navigating domestic challenges. His success will depend on maintaining Taiwan’s strategic balance between the U.S. and China and addressing the internal political gridlock that hampers legislative progress. As he steps into Tsai’s shoes, Lai’s leadership will be crucial in shaping Taiwan’s future in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

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