Taiwan presidential contender sparks US concerns over China tensions

Taiwan’s next presidential election is still a year away, but for Lai Ching-te, the vice-president and likely candidate of the ruling party, the campaign to convince the US that he is a safe pair of hands starts now.

On Sunday, President Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling Democratic Progressive party elected Lai its chair, following Tsai’s resignation as party leader after the DPP’s defeat in local polls. With Tsai’s grip over her party weakened long before her final presidential term ends next year, DPP politicians expect Lai to become the party’s uncontested candidate to succeed her.

That moves to centre stage a man virtually unknown outside Taiwan and often described as “deep green” — shorthand for more radical pro-independence leanings — foreshadowing an even more turbulent year in cross-Strait relations given China’s unprecedented military threats against Taiwan.

In recent opinion polls, Lai is slightly behind Hou Yu-ih, the popular mayor of the country’s largest municipality from the Kuomintang (KMT), the more China-friendly opposition party. But Lai is seen as the clear winner of a presidential race if the KMT nominates its chair Eric Chu.

“The United States doesn’t know Lai as well as we knew Tsai when she ran for president because he hasn’t been in any notable national positions before premier and VP,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the US.

In contrast to Tsai, a trade lawyer who helped negotiate Taiwan’s accession to the World Trade Organization before running for office, Lai’s main support is in the south, the heartland of pro-independence sentiment. A physician by training, he served as a lawmaker and as mayor of Tainan, a DPP stronghold, before becoming premier in 2017 and vice-president in 2020. Lai’s career has been boosted by his charisma and an uncompromising push against pork barrel politics.

But foreign perceptions of him have been shaped by the fact that he once described himself as a “political worker for Taiwan independence”. Lai subsequently added the attribute “pragmatic”. But the damage was done.

“There are concerns in Washington about his experience and that of his advisers on international or cross-Strait affairs,” said Ivan Kanapathy, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former National Security Council official in the Trump White House. A US government official said it was “difficult to be reassured when you hear him declare that Taiwan is an independent nation”.

Lai has repeatedly stated publicly that Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country, and includes this in his talking points in closed-door meetings with foreign counterparts.

Taiwanese vice-president, Lai Ching-te gives a speech in 2020
Taiwan’s vice-president Lai Ching-te is less familiar to diplomats abroad than President Tsai Ing-wen, who many expect him to stand to succeed for the ruling party © Annabelle Chih/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

However, both DPP politicians and foreign observers with deep knowledge of Taiwan caution against reading this language as signalling the intention to formally declare independence — a move to which China has threatened to respond with war.

Lai’s stance is in line with the position the DPP has held for more than 20 years, a position that made it electable for mainstream voters: that there is no need to declare independence because the country is independent already, and that its future must be determined by the Taiwanese people.

“Anxiety about Lai being pro-independence is partly due to a lack of understanding of Taiwan’s domestic political discourse,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, a lobby group. “The apprehension many express about him reflects more latent concern about the deep green every time an election comes around. To be fair, Lai has played in that pool, but he is becoming more careful now.”

Tsai is a case in point. After she visited Washington in 2011 during her first presidential bid — which she lost against the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou from the KMT — the Obama administration expressed doubts that she might not be willing or able to keep cross-Strait relations stable.

But since she took office in 2016, Tsai has won Washington’s trust with a more prudent approach to China and more reliable communication with the US than most past Taiwanese leaders, while US-China relations deteriorated over Beijing’s increasing belligerence. “Back then, Taiwan was viewed as the questionable actor, but now it’s all about containing China,” said an American observer involved in Taiwan policy in the past.

The vice-president is already trying to build an international profile and allay US concerns.

In recent months, Tsai has sent him on a few foreign trips and included him in more national security meetings. Lai has built a relationship with Sandra Oudkirk, the US quasi-ambassador in Taiwan.

“He understands that as a mayor he could express his own views, but as a president he would be confined by a different set of limits,” said a person who advised him on foreign relations. “He knows that he will have to [be] more pragmatic, and so we are seeing an evolving Lai Ching-te now.”

But although the vice-president closely hews to Tsai’s line in China affairs, there are differences in tone.

In meetings with US counterparts, including with a delegation of former officials US president Joe Biden sent to Taiwan last March, Lai has called on America to abandon its ambiguous stance on whether it would come to Taiwan’s aid if the country were attacked by China — a desire many in Tsai’s administration share but avoid expressing too candidly.

Biden has said repeatedly that the US would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, but the White House has appeared to keep Washington’s position ambiguous by stating that its policy had not changed.

Lai’s statements that Taiwan is an independent country also slightly differ from those of Tsai, who typically pledges to defend its sovereignty and also mentions the Republic of China, the country’s official name, seen as a reassurance that she views a formal declaration of independence as unnecessary.

These nuances may be enough to keep Washington’s concerns alive.

“US-China policy is on the move, and Taiwan policy will be more low-profile as the Biden administration tries to find ways to work with the Chinese,” Hammond-Chambers said. “It is possible that there will be a sharp, direct conversation with Lai at some point.”

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