Lai Ching-te is the right next president for Taiwan

Last Updated on May 17, 2024 2:47 pm

By William A. Stanton
Taiwan News, Contributing Columnist

Although I am a non-voting resident of Taiwan, I have lived and worked here since 2009, and it is clearly a country I care very much about.

I deeply respect and appreciate all that Taiwan has accomplished. With little more than its highly skilled and hard-working population to work with, Taiwan has developed into an economic, political, and technological miracle and a model of success.

I want Taiwan to continue that success, which also depends on remaining democratic, free, prosperous, and at peace. For that reason, I welcomed the election of Dr. Lai Ching-te (賴清德), who will be inaugurated as the president on May 20.

I believe the Taiwanese people who voted him into office absolutely made the right decision. Lai has unsurpassed political experience preparing him for the highest office.

No one I know can match the breadth of his political leadership and experience over the past 25 years: 10 years as a member of the Legislative Yuan, seven years as Tainan mayor, three years as the premier, and four years as the vice president.

A determined man

As the son of a father who never finished high school, I cannot help but especially admire Lai’s rise to prominence. From a working-class coal-mining family, whose father died when he was only two years old, to become a medical doctor and later to receive a master’s degree from Harvard University, Lai has already demonstrated a seriousness of purpose, diligence, and intelligence few can match.

A virtuous man

Many of Lai’s admirers also cite his support for the poor, the disadvantaged, and minorities, highlighting his strong moral character. One corporate president told me that he supported Lai because he fully embodied the Four Cardinal Principles: propriety (禮), righteousness (義), integrity (廉), and (avoidance of) shame (恥). He noted in particular Lai’s efforts as Tainan mayor in combating corruption.

Cuts to the chase

When I was the AIT director, I remember one meeting in particular with then-Mayor Lai in Tainan on instructions from Washington to see if he could help overcome the biggest obstacle to a bilateral free trade agreement: opposition to imports of U.S. beef and pork because of a feed additive residue that would sometimes get into the meat.

Lai listened carefully as I made my case. I suggested Taiwan might begin by importing U.S. beef, considering most Taiwanese did not eat much of it, while foreign residents would be pleased, and U.S. beef was, after all, the best in the world. Moreover, what I really cared about was getting a free trade agreement, which would be in Taiwan’s best interest and great for our overall relationship.

Responding with a friendly laugh, Lai told me he would help me if he could, but very simply, nothing could be done because it was a political issue. I appreciated his directness and honesty. There was no point in a debate if the conclusion was already drawn.

Navigating the cross-strait relationship

Even though Lai has moderated his rhetoric about Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, the Taiwanese are clearly more comfortable with the lives they now enjoy in contrast to what they see in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There is almost no support for unification despite KMT’s claims to a 92 Consensus; you can agree to disagree, but that is not a consensus. We should not pretend to ourselves otherwise.

The Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in its December 2023 poll found that 33.2% of Taiwanese wanted to maintain the cross-strait status quo indefinitely; 27.9% wanted to maintain the status quo, and decide at a later date; 21.5% wanted to maintain the status quo, but move toward independence; 3.8% wanted independence as soon as possible; and only 1.2 % wanted unification as soon as possible. Therefore 86. 4% did not want unification, whether now or in the future.

It was no surprise that Lai’s election sparked Beijing’s anger, expressed in “multi-front saturated grey-zone” tactics of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ships and aircraft swarming around Taiwan.

Continuing threats and harassment are self-defeating, as Taiwanese public opinion grows increasingly hostile with each air defense identification zone (ADIZ) intrusion or strongly worded statement.

Lai’s election reassured Washington because it represented a popular vote for continuity and stability in Taiwan’s cross-strait policy. Demonstrating its support for Taiwan in anticipation of Lai’s inauguration, on May 10 the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party introduced a bill that would approve US$120 million (NT$3.89 billion) to be spent on “supporting Taiwan’s international space and tackling coercion by China.”

Over time, U.S. support for Taiwan has only grown stronger. But it is also true that with Lai as president, Taiwan must increase its spending on national security. As former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby recently wrote in a commentary titled “Taiwan Must Get Serious about Defense”:

…the PRC threat to Taiwan is genuinely existential for a free, democratic, and autonomous Taiwan … For an island facing a threat so acute, lethal, and imminent, Taiwan is showing an alarming lack of urgency in dramatically strengthening its defenses. This is incredibly dangerous because the fate of Taiwan depends on the military defensibility of the island. It will ultimately be military power that will deter and, if necessary, defeat a PRC invasion of Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will not be stopped by hashtags and good wishes from afar. Yet in August last year, Taiwan announced plans to spend just US$19 billion on defense — a measly 2.5 percent of the island’s GDP. While it is true that Taiwan has made some progress, for instance in adopting an asymmetric approach to its defense, its spending and pace of preparations have been woefully inadequate given the awing scale of China’s military buildup.

Domestic issues

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has deservedly earned credit for her handling of international affairs and national security. The principal reservation I have heard, especially from young people, including those who support the Democratic Progressive Party, has been a lack of progress on domestic issues, including unemployment, low wages, the scarcity of affordable housing, and suspicions of unspecified corruption. These are issues which Lai can also bring his experience to bear.

Political divide

We also have to face the fact that Lai won only 40% of the vote. KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) won 33.5% and TPP candidate Ko Wen-Je (柯文哲) won 26.5%.

The DPP also lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan. The KMT has 52 seats, the DPP only 51, and the TPP eight.

Lai will therefore face a divided government and strong opposition, making it harder for him to achieve his policy goals. And, he will face more quixotic opposition proposals such as expanded economic agreements with the PRC, inviting more Chinese students and workers to Taiwan, and increased dialogue as if such gestures would assuage Beijing’s insistence on “One China.” Has no one paid attention to what the PRC did to Hong Kong?

Key appointments

For assistance in managing international relations, I believe everyone surely agrees that both Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) as vice president and Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) as secretary general of the National Security Council are ideal choices. As the Taiwan representative to the U.S., Hsiao did outstanding work in strengthening U.S. relations with Taiwan.

Wu performed superbly in a position with global scope as the foreign minister. Lai is fortunate to have two such outstanding officials on his team. And they are only the ones I know well from their work.

As a friend and supporter of Taiwan, I warmly welcome the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te and wish him, his administration, and Taiwan every success in the face of the many challenges they will encounter.

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