Taiwan swears in new president as China pressure grows

Dene-Hern Chen - Agence France-Presse
Taiwan swears in new president as China pressure grows
Taiwan's President-elect Lai Ching-te (C) addresses supporters as he stands with his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim (R) during a rally outside the headquarters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taipei on January 13, 2024, after Lai won the presidential election. Taiwan's ruling party candidate Lai Ching-te, branded a threat to peace by China, on January 13 won the island's presidential election, a vote watched closely from Beijing to Washington.
AFPYasuyoshi Chiba

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's president-elect Lai Ching-te will be sworn into office Monday, putting him at the helm of the self-ruled island as China ramps up military and political pressure on Taipei.

China claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and has branded 64-year-old Lai a "dangerous separatist" who will bring "war and decline" to the island.

Lai will succeed President Tsai Ing-wen, whose eight years in power saw a sharp deterioration in relations with Beijing over her rejection of China's claim.

Like Tsai, Lai is a staunch defender of the island's democracy and in the past has described himself as a "pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence".

Lai has toned down his rhetoric and has repeatedly vowed to maintain the "status quo" on the Taiwan Strait, which means preserving Taiwan's sovereignty while not declaring formal independence.

The inauguration ceremony will begin at 09:00 am (0100 GMT) at the Japanese colonial-era Presidential Office Building in Taipei, where Lai and his vice president-elect Hsiao Bi-khim will be sworn into office.

Lai and Hsiao -- arguably better known on the global stage due to her former role as Taiwan's top envoy to Washington -- are both part of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has championed Taiwan's sovereignty.

Lai will later deliver his inaugural speech -- which will be scrutinised for clues on how he will handle Taipei's delicate relationship with Beijing -- in front of thousands of people outside the Presidential Office.

Eight heads of state will be among the 51 international delegations -- including from the United States, Japan and Canada -- attending the ceremony in a show of support for the island's democracy.

More than a thousand performers showcasing traditional operas and dances will take part in a celebration that also includes an Air Force aerial formation to salute the new president.

More defense spending

With only 12 allies, Taipei lacks diplomatic recognition on the world stage.

But it has its own government, military and currency, and the majority of the 23 million population see themselves as having a distinct Taiwanese identity, separate from the Chinese.

Following in Tsai's footsteps, Lai is expected to boost defence spending and strengthen ties with democratic governments, especially Washington, Taiwan's key partner and weapons supplier.

Beijing has long threatened to use force to bring Taiwan under its control -- especially if the island declares independence -- with Xi upping the rhetoric of "unification" being "inevitable".

Ahead of Lai's inauguration, Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait issues, called "Taiwan independence and peace in the strait... like water and fire".

Chinese warplanes and naval vessels maintain a near-daily presence around the island, and in the week before the swearing-in ceremony, there was an uptick in fighter jets and drones.

On the eve of the inauguration, some Taiwanese were pessimistic about the chances for an improvement in ties.

Student Chang Hsin-rui told AFP he expected "the situation in the strait to get worse."

"We will be caught and seized in the narrowing crack for quite a period," the 19-year-old said.

Lai has made overtures for resuming high-level communications with China, which Beijing severed in 2016 when Tsai took power, but experts say they are likely to be rebuffed.

The DPP has lost its majority in Taipei's parliament -- where a brawl broke out Friday among lawmakers from all three parties -- which could make it difficult for Lai to push through his policies.

But many Taiwanese are less worried about the threat of conflict than they are about soaring housing prices, rising cost of living pressures, and stagnating wages.

"If war should break out there would be little I could do," Jay, a 20-year-old student who gave only his first name, told AFP as he took a photo of the Presidential Office.

"So I will just go with the flow."

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