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Seeing through Lai Ching-te's peace cloak

First Voice

 , Updated 16:28, 18-Jan-2024
Seeing through Lai Ching-te's peace cloak

Editor's note: CGTN's First Voice provides instant commentary on breaking stories. The column clarifies emerging issues and better defines the news agenda, offering a Chinese perspective on the latest global events.

Notorious for his pro-independence stance, Lai Ching-te from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has interestingly started to tout for peace in the aftermath of China's Taiwan leadership election.

"We must replace encirclement with exchanges, and confrontation with dialogue, in order to achieve peace and co-prosperity, and the only way out is to have peace, equality and a democratic dialogue," Lai said in his victory speech after the regional election.

Lai tamed his independent instinct for selfish calculations.

Gaining votes

Bread-and-butter issues, not the stance on the Chinese mainland, have turned out to be the top concern of Taiwan locals, according to a survey local institutes conducted before the regional election.

Since taking office, the DPP has been bombarded for failing to revive the Taiwan economy. Stagnating salaries, soaring housing prices, and a significant unemployment rate are becoming the "new normal" in the Taiwan region. Statistics from the Taipei City Government shows that the average house price in Taipei is 30 times Taiwan locals' annual income.

Making a decent living has turned out to be the No.1 consideration of young local people. "It's not war young voters worry about – it's jobs," BBC said in the headline in its coverage of the Taiwan regional election. By professing peace and dialogue, Lai attempts to woo more votes.

It is worth noting that Lai won the election with only about 40 percent of popular votes. His vote share and number of voters were both at the lowest level in Taiwan's elections. The regional leaders had always received more than 50 percent of the votes. But the rules – the winner needs only a simple majority to win – determine Lai's victory.

A street view in China's Taiwan. /CFP
A street view in China's Taiwan. /CFP

A street view in China's Taiwan. /CFP

Vying for support from Washington

Serving the U.S. master is the primary task of the DPP. Every DPP leader follows this "code of conduct," and so does Lai.

"We do not support independence" for Taiwan, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered the blunt message after Lai's victory on Saturday. But Lai – known as a "pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence" – is seen by many as a "troublemaking wild card" for Washington.

Eurasia Group, for instance, labelled Lai as "America's dangerous friend" that could entangle the U.S. into expanded conflicts this year. "While Biden will oppose any de jure independence moves from Lai, the domestic politics of the Taiwan issue (question) will prevent the U.S. President from objecting to the smaller, symbolic steps toward de facto autonomy Lai is likely to take," Eurasia Group said in an opinion, adding that this "could jeopardize the U.S.-China thaw and risk a dangerous cycle of escalation."

To dispel Washington's concerns about the potential risks, Lai has to build his image as an advocator for peace. For Lai, reassuring Washington that he is a "safe friend" is the first step to gain support.

Not want troubles

"Taiwan independence" means war. If this scenario happens, it's all over for the DPP, considering the huge military gap between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

"Those in office don't want to cause trouble. Neither will Lai," The Washington Post quoted Yao Chia-wen, DPP's chairman from 1987 to 1988, as saying.

For Lai and the DPP, sustaining and extending their political longevity outweighs their secessionist goal. The DPP has "changed from an organization leading political reforms to an election machine," said Yao.

In this context, touting peace has turned out to be an ideal choice for Lai.

Dangers of Lai's feigning peace

But the Chinese mainland can see through Lai's "peace" cloak. As a Tsai Ing-wen 3.0, Lai has been enthusiastic with beefing up Taiwan's military. Earlier, Lai touted the DPP's achievements in increasing the defense budget from 2 percent of GDP in 2017 to roughly 2.5 percent in 2023. While the DPP has already squandered billions of taxpayers' money to buy weapons from the U.S., Lai, on multiple occasions, still stressed the need to increase the defense expenditure.

An increased defense budget will inevitably result in decreased expenditure in public welfare. This means Taiwan taxpayers – still struggling to address the bread-and-butter issues – will have to pay more for defense. Worse still, Lai's enthusiasm in boosting Taiwan's defense capability could gradually make the island the powder keg of Asia.

In addition, Lai has, for several times, expressed his ambition to build closer ties with the United States. Although the Biden administration has clarified it will not support "Taiwan independence," Washington is happy to play the Taiwan card for selfish gains. Lai colluding with Washington will escalate the situation across the Straits. This will only make "peace" and "co-prosperity" more distant for people in the Taiwan region.

Intensified "official" exchanges between the U.S. and the Taiwan region, for instance, gravely violate the one-China principle. This could invite a cocktail of economic, political, and military countermeasures from the Chinese mainland, tremendously raising the risk of hot conflicts where Taiwan locals will be the biggest victim.

To realize peace, Lai should, in the first place, acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. As the mainland has reiterated, as long as the 1992 Consensus is adhered to and "Taiwan independence" is opposed, cross-Straits relations can return to the right track of peaceful development.

Touting peace, Lai should at least show some sincerity.

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