• World
  • Taiwan

Taiwan’s New President Extends an Olive Branch to Beijing. It Matters Little

6 minute read

It was a speech that preached harmony while highlighting differences. After William Lai Ching-te was sworn in as Taiwan’s new President on Monday, he used his first address to call for repairing cross-Strait relations, while namechecking “democracy” 31 times to underscore the gulf between his island’s government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) determined to bring it to heel.

“Mutual benefits and prosperous coexistence would be common goals,” Lai, 64, told the crowd that featured eight heads of state among 51 international delegations, including from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Japan, and Canada. “I hope that China will face the reality of [Taiwan’s] existence.”

It’s a place in the world that Beijing is determined to undermine. Taiwan became politically self-ruling at the culmination of China’s civil war in 1949 after spending half-a-century as a Japanese colony until 1945. Although the CCP has never ruled the island of 23 million, Chinese President Xi Jinping considers its return to the fold as a “historical inevitability” and has repeatedly threatened force to achieve it.

Under the two terms of the outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, who belongs to the same China-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as Lai, China peeled away nine diplomatic allies of Taiwan. Just 48 hours after Lai was announced victor in January’s election, China also persuaded tiny Nauru to ditch Taipei for Beijing, so that now only 12 allies remain.

As such, Lai’s calls for mending relations don’t look hopeful. Ahead of his inauguration, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office compared the compatibility of “Taiwan independence and peace in the strait” to that of “water and fire.” Lai, himself, has been branded a “troublemaker” and “dangerous separatist.”

Still, Lai knows optics are vital to stability, and outward hostility helps no one. Beijing cut off formal communications with Taiwan following Tsai’s first election victory in 2016. Lai called for a resumption of bilateral reciprocal sightseeing, tourism, and educational exchanges with China, “so that we can work together in the pursuit of peace and co-prosperity.” Yet Lai tellingly caveated such reengagement on “dignity and equivalence,” which sounds prohibitively high for territory that Xi considers his own. For the inauguration speech, the priority seemed simply to sound the right notes and avoid any language that could be construed as an affront.

“With the continuation of the DPP, top level contact with Beijing is not likely to happen for the foreseeable future,” says Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. “And that’s a problem.”

Not least for the many people in Taiwan who have familial and business ties inside China and would like a return to less hostile times. After all, Lai won 40.1% of January’s vote with the opposition Nationalists (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)—which both campaigned on repairing ties with Beijing—getting 33.5% and 26.5% respectively. By implication, most Taiwan voters disagreed with the DPP’s China-skeptic approach but were torn on the best China-friendly alternative.

That’s the message that China will be pushing, highlighting that Lai doesn’t even have the backing of a parliamentary majority to push through his agenda. Domestic concerns also loom large, with torpid growth, stagnating wages, and rising prices. In chaotic scenes last week, lawmakers threw punches and brawled in the parliament over proposed legislation that would grant the opposition greater scrutiny powers of the government.

“A lot will come down to the Lai administration’s ability to get a majority over particular issues by trying to find cleavages between the TPP or KMT,” says Chong Ja Ian, an expert on China’s diplomacy and professor at the National University of Singapore. “So I guess a lot of horse trading.”

But while many Taiwanese hanker after greater security, there’s conversely also a fear of soft colonization by Beijing. In 2014, a trade pact with China that opponents believed would leave Taiwan vulnerable to political pressure prompted hundreds of students to occupy the Taipei legislature in what became known as the Sunflower Movement. That sense of Taiwanese identity has only swollen since. Today, 78% of islanders describe themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese or some mix.

Ultimately, most in Taiwan just want to live their lives without worrying about aggression from Beijing. Chinese warplanes and naval vessels maintain an almost constant, menacing presence around the island, with an uptick in fighter jets and drones activity in the lead up to Lai’s inauguration. Already, deteriorating cross-Strait relations spurred Tsai to extend mandatory military service for males from four months to one year. In his inauguration speech, Lai’s said his administration will concentrate on next generation semiconductors and communications technology to ensure Taiwan’s critical role in global supply chains.

“So long as China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, all of us should accept… China’s threats to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear,” he said.

To counter those threats, relations with the U.S have taken on unprecedented importance. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai and “the Taiwan people for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust and resilient democratic system,” and President Joe Biden has on four occasions vowed to come to the island’s defense. But the status of Taiwan has become a cudgel for politicians of all stripes trying to appear tough on China. Among the American delegation on Monday was former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has called for the U.S. to formally recognize Taiwan as a nation, a proposition that would no doubt spur Beijing to drastic retaliation. Building ties with the U.S. comes with their own risk—not least as November’s presidential election approaches.

“I don’t want to rule out the possibility that the United States could potentially be overly provocative on this issue,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, author of Upstart: How China Became a Great Power. “Though I can't imagine those things happening without Taiwan’s consent.”

At Monday’s inauguration festivities, huge models of tigers, cheerleaders, dancing dumplings, and singing school children entertained crowds outside the Presidential Office Building. Then came a performance by pro-independence punk band Fire EX, whose song, “Island’s Sunrise,” was the official anthem of the Sunflower Movement. “Let’s stand up like Taiwanese!” bellowed out lead singer Sam, “our honor will not be sold, we continue to fight for this land!” Even if Beijing could not fault Lai’s words, the symbolism beneath the pageantry was impossible to miss.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com