He won a party vote on Sunday to take over as interim chairman after the Democratic Progressive Party’s crushing defeat in Taiwan’s mayoral race last November saw President Tsai Ing-wen resign as party chairman. Lai is also expected to be the party’s candidate in the 2024 presidential election.
“In the face of future threats from China, our new mission is to defend Taiwan and promote Taiwan’s democracy, peace and prosperity,” said Lai, a longtime politician who was mayor of the southern city of Tainan. “Peace is what everyone wants.”
If he does become a presidential candidate, observers will be watching how he handles Sino-US relations.
Lai once described himself as a “political worker advocating Taiwan independence” during his tenure in the Tsai cabinet in the previous government, but this does not rule out extending a “hand of friendship” to China.
Wang Gaozheng, a professor at Tamkang University and an expert on international relations, said he may continue Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign policy by working closely with Japan and the United States.
“I think everyone is very concerned about how he will handle cross-strait relations, because he calls himself a ‘pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence,'” Wang said. “It’s become an important label on him.”
In his speech on Wednesday, Lai said he would continue to implement Tsai Ing-wen’s “four continuations” Taiwan and China policy, affirming Taiwan’s democratic system and insisting that Taiwan and China do not belong together.
In November last year, Lai Laiying said that he interpreted the words “Taiwan independence workers” as “Taiwan is not part of China”, which is also consistent with Tsai Ing-wen’s public statement.
Taiwan and the mainland have been ruled separately since a civil war in 1949.
Beijing views Taiwan as Chinese territory that must be controlled by force if necessary. A series of visits to Taiwan by foreign politicians in recent months, including then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and representatives of the European Union, has spurred a show of military muscle on both sides.
China refuses to recognize Taiwan’s right to self-determination or recognize Tsai Ing-wen’s government. There has been no formal contact between the two sides since the first of her two terms began in 2016.
Lai served as president of the Executive Yuan — Taiwan’s cabinet — and was a physician before entering politics.
“He is an honest politician,” You Yinglong, a former deputy secretary of the Democratic Progressive Party, said of Lai. “He will not play the role of a political adventurer on cross-strait issues.”