By Ben Blanchard and Sarah Wu
TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan’s vice president and front-runner to be the island’s next president, William Lai, is in the eye of the storm after China launched widely expected drills near Taiwan in an angry response to his brief visits to the United States this month.
While Lai has repeatedly said ahead of January’s election that he wants to keep the status quo with China, which claims Taiwan as its own, and offered to talk to Beijing, the Chinese government has only reacted with hostility.
“We don’t want to become enemies with China. We can become friends,” Lai told a Taiwanese television station this month.
But in China’s view, Lai is a separatist and “troublemaker through and through”, for comments he first made in 2017 as premier about being a “worker” for Taiwan’s independence, a red line for Beijing.
In 2018, as premier, he told parliament he was a “practical worker for Taiwan independence”, causing one Chinese newspaper, the widely-read Global Times, to call for China to issue an international arrest warrant for Lai and prosecute him under China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law.
Lai said at the time and many times since he simply meant Taiwan is already an independent country, and on the campaign trail stuck by President Tsai Ing-wen’s line that the Republic of China, Taiwan’s formal name, and the People’s Republic of China are “not subordinate to each other”.
Taiwan’s constitution states that the Republic of China is a sovereign state, and that has been a consensus shared by all Taiwan’s main political parties. The Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong’s communists, who set up the People’s Republic.
What worries Beijing is the idea that Lai could try to change the status quo by declaring the establishment of a Republic of Taiwan, which Lai has said he will not do.
“I think China hates him, really hates him,” said Wu Xinbo, an international relations professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “It is because if he is elected as the leader of Taiwan, he may come to advance his goal of Taiwan independence, which will provoke a crisis across the Taiwan Strait.”
Still, while China has announced sanctions on several senior Taiwanese officials, including Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, it has not done so for Lai, perhaps indicating Beijing does not want to totally shut the door to one day having talks with him.
“They are wary and maybe a bit distrustful of William Lai, but it doesn’t mean that Beijing cannot be pragmatic,” said George Yin, a research fellow at National Taiwan University.
“Given that Beijing has become increasingly hawkish, I think the next Taiwanese presidency would very likely be characterised by a series of grey zone conflict and economic coercion. I think the intensity would go up,” Yin said.
Lai, during the election campaign, has been at pains to say he will stick to President Tsai’s path of proffering talks with China and maintaining peace and the status quo, while also pledging to defend the island and reiterating only its people can decide the island’s future.
Lai became vice president in 2020, standing as Tsai’s running mate where they won a landslide victory after warning of the threat to Taiwan from China given Beijing’s crackdown on anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Since then, China has massively ramped up military drills near Taiwan and held two rounds of war games, last August and again in April, in response to Taiwanese engagement with the United States.
China has rebuffed even the gentlest approaches by Lai.In May, at a question and answer session with students at his alma mater, National Taiwan University, Lai said the head of state he would most like to have dinner with is Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he would advise to “chill out a little”.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said his comments were “weird” and “deceitful” given that his “Taiwan independence nature” had not changed.
China has demanded Taiwan’s government accept that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “one China,” something Tsai and Lai have refused to do.
“He appears even more resolute than Tsai Ing-wen on this,” said Meng Chih-cheng, a political science professor at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sarah Wu; Additional reporting by Martin Pollard in Beijing and Casey Hall in Shanghai; Editing by Sonali Paul)