Taiwan’s William Lai could signal friendlier cross-strait ties at inauguration, but Beijing isn’t getting its hopes up

Beijing has realistic and limited expectations for the inauguration speech William Lai Ching-te will deliver when he is sworn in as Taiwan’s president on Monday, analysts say, but there are still ways he can signal willingness to improve cross-strait ties.

Lai is expected to deliver a wide-ranging speech that will set the tone for his presidential term. It is likely to cover key strategic issues including Taipei’s relations with Beijing and Washington.

Analysts sat that Beijing will closely watch the speech for signals despite its limited expectations.

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“He used to call himself a pragmatic independence worker, so [Beijing] basically already had a general view about him,” said Zhu Songling, a professor at Beijing Union University’s Institute of Taiwan Studies.

“Beijing has zero, or even a negative level of trust in him ... the situation might be very dangerous after he takes office.”

Beijing has already labelled Lai as a “troublemaker” and a “destroyer of cross-strait peace”. It has also called him a “stubborn Taiwan independence worker”, whereas Lai has characterised himself as a “pragmatic” one.

Earlier this month, Beijing lashed out at Lai for “ingratiating” himself with Japan after he invoked a warning by former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe that “Taiwan’s emergency is Japan’s emergency”, referring to a potential military clash.

Zhu’s view was echoed by Yu Xintian, former director of the think tank Shanghai Institute for Taiwan Studies.

“Lai had many chances to express goodwill towards the mainland before he came into power, but I haven’t seen any signs – including [any signs] regarding the reopening of tourism,” Yu said.

“On the contrary, he intensified his efforts by making remarks about promoting Taiwan independence,” Yu said, adding that Lai was likely to follow Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s cross-strait policies, with Washington’s support.

Back in 2016, right after Tsai’s first inauguration speech, Beijing responded that she had yet to complete the “answer sheet”, meaning she did not meet Beijing’s bar on cross-strait relations.

Specifically, she did not acknowledge the 1992 consensus, an unofficial agreement between Taipei and Beijing that both sides of the strait belong to one China, though they are free to have their own interpretations of what that means.

Following Tsai’s speech, Beijing cut off official communication with Taipei.

Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China to be reunited by force if necessary. Most countries, including the US, do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to supplying it with weapons.

Despite Beijing’s low expectations, Yu said Lai could still make gestures in next week’s speech to improve cross-strait ties.

“For example, the mainland accepted what Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party once said: ‘The two sides of the strait are one family’,” Yu said, adding that while Ko’s stance avoided touching on cross-strait political relations, he at least showed the two sides were not enemies and had cultural and blood connections, which was welcomed by Beijing.

“But I don’t think Lai intends to do that ... I am not optimistic about it,” Yu said.

Wang Kun-yi, director general of the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, said Beijing should show more patience regarding the speech before making a final judgment to create more space for engagement.

“In 2016, the mainland immediately denounced Tsai Ing-wen’s speech, though she said she would handle cross-strait affairs according to the constitution ... and that led to the stalemate in the following eight years,” Wang said.

“Beijing should read more carefully into what Lai says. It’s better to give him more space, for example, on whether he will mention that the two sides of the strait belong to one ethnic nation.”

On Wednesday, Beijing called on Lai to “answer clearly” in choosing between a path of peaceful development and one of confrontation.

“Whether to ... take the right path of peaceful development, or to go against public opinion and take the evil path of provocation and confrontation, is related to ... the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” said Chen Binhua, spokesman for mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.

“It is a question that the new leader of the Taiwan region must face seriously and answer clearly.”

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