fb-pixelTaiwan’s thriving democracy struts its stuff as Beijing fumes - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Taiwan’s thriving democracy struts its stuff as Beijing fumes

A new president reaches out across the strait but knows the road ahead is rocky.

Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te delivers his inaugural speech after being sworn into office on May 20, 2024.SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

In a ceremony long on pomp and on promises, Taiwan inaugurated its fifth democratically elected president this week. But across the Taiwan Strait, China continued its threats, its military aggression and the kind of saber-rattling it has long used against the island nation.

Lai Ching-te, a doctor turned politician, who had most recently served as vice president to Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, is no naif about the precarious road ahead — a road made at least marginally safer by the recent approval of an $8 billion US aid package.

But make no mistake: This thriving democracy of 23 million people remains very much in Beijing’s crosshairs.


Lai in his inaugural speech called on China to cease its “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.

“I hope that China will face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence, respect the choices of the people of Taiwan, and in good faith, choose dialogue over confrontation, exchange over containment,” he added, using the official name for Taiwan, which has been functionally independent since 1949.

And he offered up the prospect of a resumption of once thriving cross-strait tourism and university exchange programs.

But China has long considered self-governing Taiwan as part of its own territory. The United States, since its formal recognition of China in 1979, has maintained a one-China policy, thus depriving Taiwan of a US embassy and nation status at the United Nations but not of military aid or a robust trade relationship — a good thing given its dominance in the manufacturing of the microchips that help run everything from cellphones to electric cars. Taiwan plays along with the one-state concept to a degree and hasn’t officially declared independence.


Lai’s political party, the Democratic Progressive Party, had its ideological roots in Taiwan’s independence movement but today seems largely content with a more live and let live approach — not provoking Beijing with formal steps to independence, while defending Taiwan’s democratic and economic freedom.

“As we pursue the ideal of peace, we must not harbor any delusions,” Lai said, adding, “China’s ambition to annex Taiwan will not simply disappear.”

As if to answer the challenge, a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the speech “wantonly advocated separatism, incited cross-strait confrontation and sought independence by relying on foreign support and by force.” And before inauguration day was over, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced sanctions against Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and General Dynamics Land Systems and travel bans on senior management for the companies for their arms sales to Taiwan.

While the latest US military aid is no doubt welcome and essential to helping supply enough firepower to deter military aggression by China, Taiwan has not sat idly by. It has developed its home-grown defense capabilities, including building its own submarines and trainer jets, and is preparing to launch its third and fourth domestically designed and built stealth corvette warships.

In addition, Lai’s predecessor did her part to boost the nation’s defenses by announcing a return to one year of mandatory military service for eligible men, beginning this year.


A report released this week by the Brookings Institution on the rising threats faced by Taiwan suggested that the US role should include “substantive policies that give Taiwan meaningful, concrete forms of deterrence — continued defensive arms sales, trade agreements, and helping Taiwan avoid international isolation,” which, the report said, “are more important than symbolic actions.”

It put then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan — and the aggressive Chinese response it engendered — as more provocation than helpful.

The Brookings analysis got it right on deterrence. The planned $65 billion three-factory complex in Arizona to be run by chip giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is surely part of that strategy — a win-win for the United States, bolstering our domestic chip industry while supporting a Taiwan-based company and helping to assure China remains dependent on the West for a product crucial to its future.

Writing recently in The Washington Post, Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a national security think tank, suggested that kind of policy could in the long run, as the headline said, “keep Taiwan free.”

It’s certainly one piece of a complex puzzle, along with direct military aid and an open pipeline for critical equipment.

As murky as the official US one-China policy remains, there is the simple fact that democracies need to support other democracies. That’s a part of our national DNA, and the inauguration of yet another democratically elected president in Taiwan is a good time to remember that.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.