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Taiwanese leader Lai sends ‘dangerous signals’ with pro-independence speech: Beijing

Taiwanese leader Lai sends ‘dangerous signals’ with pro-independence speech: Beijing
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Beijing has accused new Taiwanese leader William Lai Ching-te of sending “dangerous signals” about seeking independence that undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

A statement released by the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office about five hours after Lai’s inauguration speech on Monday said the new president had fully exposed his true nature as a “Taiwan independence worker”.

“We will never tolerate any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities,” TAO spokesman Chen Binhua said in the statement.

Lai’s speech “stubbornly adheres to the stance of ‘Taiwan independence’, vigorously promotes the fallacy of separatism, incites cross-strait confrontation, and attempts to ‘rely on external forces to seek independence’”, according to the statement.

Beijing’s leadership took a similar five hours before issuing a statement in 2016 after Lai’s predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, made her first remarks in the role. Tsai’s two terms of office were marked by escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

Protesters gather near the presidential office building, where the inauguration ceremony of Taiwanese President William Lai Ching-te and Vice-President Hsiao Bi-khim took place on Monday. Photo: AFP

Mainland academics earlier described the speech as sending a “very intense” signal to the mainland with its “pro-independence” language.

Zhu Songling, a Taiwan affairs specialist at Beijing Union University, said Lai’s speech – which followed his presidential inauguration on Monday morning – was “very intense and [stated] there is one country on each side [of the strait]”.

“He was also talking about protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and fighting the mainland together with so-called democratic countries. Such logic is very clear throughout his speech,” Zhu said.

“I don’t know what decision [Beijing] will make [about its response], but it definitely will not be treated nicely.”

Zhang Wensheng, deputy dean of Xiamen University’s Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies, said Lai’s speech showed him to be a “diehard Taiwan independence force” and that “political confrontation will be the main theme” of the next four years.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, to be brought under mainland control by force, if necessary. Most countries, including the United States, do not recognise the island as an independent state, but Washington is opposed to a unilateral change to the status quo.

In his speech, Lai – who in 2017 described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” – pledged to maintain the status quo and called on Beijing to jointly defend peace. He also urged the mainland to stop its “intimidation” of Taiwan.

“I also want to call on China to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan, share with Taiwan the global responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as the greater region, and ensure the world is free from the fear of war,” he said.

Lai added that Taiwan should have no illusions about Beijing’s intentions.

“My fellow citizens, as we pursue the ideal of peace, we must not harbour any delusions,” he said.

“So long as China refuses to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, all of us in Taiwan ought to understand that, even if we accept the entirety of China’s position and give up our sovereignty, China’s ambition to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear.”

In a comment that is likely to unnerve Beijing, Lai described Taiwan as a “frontline guardian of world peace” because of its strategic location in the “first island chain” – a US Cold War strategy to contain the Soviet Union and China with a military presence in the Western Pacific.

“Taiwan is strategically positioned in the first island chain, and what affects us here affects global geopolitical development. Now in 2024, Taiwan’s role is even more significant,” Lai said.

Danny Russel, vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, predicted that Beijing would “react badly” to Lai’s assertion that the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official name – and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other.

Lai’s call for the people of Taiwan to oppose annexation and protect their sovereignty would also not go down well with Beijing, Russel said.

“But there is virtually nothing that Lai could have said, short of ‘unconditional surrender’, that would satisfy Beijing,” Russel noted.

Lai’s pledge to maintain the “status quo” was also certain to fall flat with Beijing, Russel said.

“For Taipei and the West, ‘status quo’ means restraint and the responsible management of cross-strait relations. For Beijing, it means continuing an unacceptable drift towards Taiwan independence and away from unification.”

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