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War of words breaks out across Taiwan Strait as new government sworn in

President Lai Ching-te giving his inaugural address in the plaza fronting the Presidential Office Building in Taipei (Source: Office of the President - Taiwan)

Newly inaugurated Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te has kicked off a war of words between the island democracy and its larger communist neighbour, raising the stakes and temperature in one of the world’s most hotly contested flashpoints.

Newly inaugurated Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te has kicked off a war of words between the island democracy and its larger communist neighbour, raising the stakes and temperature in one of the world’s most hotly contested flashpoints.

It is the confrontation that the world and the Indo-Pacific, in particular, hope never happens, a direct and open conflict between the United States and its allies and China over the small, island democracy of Taiwan in the far-flung expanse of the Western Pacific.

Amid growing antagonism and sabre-rattling from Beijing seeking to solve its “Taiwan problem”, reinforced by growing speculation from leading US defence leaders like former commander, US Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral (Ret’d) Philip Davidson testifying to the Senate armed services committee, “Taiwan is clearly one of their [Beijing’s] ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”


This ominous warning heralds a more concerning impact for the global order, should a conflict break out of Taiwan, with ADM Davidson further adding, “I worry that they’re [Beijing] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do that by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer.”

Through the Cold War-era policy of “strategic ambiguity”, the United States has managed to keep the tensions across the Taiwan Strait from spiralling out control, in spite of various periods of flare-up, such as the Taiwan Strait Crisis in the mid-90s; now, however, this strategy appears to be facing ambiguity in its own being.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that when it comes to Taiwan, the stakes are high and only getting higher.

Exacerbating things is the recent inauguration of new Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te who has used his inaugural address to really set a cat among the pigeons, defying the ambitions of Xi Jinping and the People’s Republic of China.

A promise to ‘transform’ Taiwan

At the core of President Lai’s election pitch was a promise and determination to “transform” Taiwan in the face of the mounting tensions with mainland China and the broader deterioration of the regional and global power paradigm.

President Lai told the gathered crowds, “When I was young, I was determined to practice medicine and save lives. When I went into politics, I was determined to transform Taiwan...

“Now, we not only witness the beginning of a new administration, but also usher in another hard-earned victory for democracy ... I also want to thank my fellow citizens once again for your support, for refusing to be swayed by external forces, for resolutely defending democracy, for pressing onward without turning back, and for turning a new page in Taiwan’s history.

“Every day of my term, I will strive to prove myself as someone in whom you can trust and count on, by acting justly, showing mercy, and being humble, and by treating our people as family. The new administration will work tirelessly and to the best of our ability, as all the nation’s people put us to the test. We will also pursue continuous reform, shaping a new face for Taiwanese politics,” President Lai said.

However, it won’t be all smooth sailing for the 64-year-old, as Taiwan has, like many nations, particularly across Europe and increasingly in Australia, seen its legislature become a contested battleground with neither of the major parties holding a majority.

Nevertheless, President Lai told the audience, “In a democratic society, the interests of the people come first – that is the root of democracy. Likewise, national interests come before the interests of parties – that is the sacred duty of each political party...

“I have high hopes for the future of cooperation between the central and local governments, as well as coordination between the executive and legislative branches. I also hope to work hard alongside all the people of Taiwan to further entrench our democracy, maintain peace in the Indo-Pacific, and boost global prosperity,” he said.

As if issuing a thinly veiled challenge to the authoritarian Xi, President Lai said, “Democracy, peace, and prosperity form Taiwan’s national roadmap. And they are also our links to the world...

“As we move forward, my administration will continue using Taiwan’s democratic vitality as a force for good, to promote national development and deepen international cooperation ... As for international affairs, we will continue working with other democratic nations to form a democratic community and share our experiences across a range of fields. We will work together to combat disinformation, strengthen democratic resilience, address challenges, and allow Taiwan to become the MVP of the democratic world,” President Lai said.

A global role for ‘democratic Taiwan’

As part of President Lai’s ambitions for Taiwan, he envisages a growing role for “democratic Taiwan” in the global order, with the island nation to play a central and pivotal role in reinforcing the global rules-based order in the face of mounting pressure from revisionist and authoritarian powers.

President Lai said, “Taiwan is strategically positioned in the first island chain, and what affects us here affects global geopolitical development. Even as early as 1921, Chiang Wei-shui said that Taiwan is a frontline guardian of world peace. Now, in 2024, Taiwan’s role is even more significant. There is already a strong international consensus, that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are indispensable to global security and prosperity.

“To adapt to today’s complicated international landscape, countries around the world have been actively cooperating to maintain regional peace and stability.”

This brings the island democracy into direct conflict with its larger, more powerful Communist neighbour which covets the nation as part of its broader regional and global push towards creating an increasingly competitive multipolar world.

Seeking to push back against the inevitable claims of antagonism to be made by the Chinese Communist Party, President Lai said, “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...

“Therefore, 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, and under the principles of parity and dignity, engage in cooperation with the legal government chosen by Taiwan’s people. This can start from the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis, and enrollment of degree students in Taiwanese institutions. Let us together pursue peace and mutual prosperity,” he said.

Mainland China’s response

True to form, mainland China has lashed the statements of President Lai’s inaugural address as being provocative and destabilising for cross-strait relations and peace in the Indo-Pacific.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told journalists in Beijing, “Let me stress that ‘Taiwan independence’ leads nowhere. No matter what banner or pretext the separatists use, ‘Taiwan independence’ is doomed to failure.”

Going further, Wang added, “Taiwan is not a country. It has been an inalienable part of China’s territory since ancient times. The international community has long reached the conclusion on this. It is a vital component of the post-WWII international order. The 1943 Cairo Declaration explicitly demands that ‘all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored’ to China. The 1945 Potsdam Proclamation further stipulates that the ‘terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out’.

“Japan in both the 1945 Japanese Instrument of Surrender and the 1972 China-Japan Joint Communiqué pledged to observe the above-mentioned term of the Potsdam Proclamation. Be it in legal or factual terms, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” he explained.

In addition to this, Wang reaffirmed the comments made by Chinese President Xi Jinping surrounding cross-strait relations and the issue of “reunification”, stating, “China will and must achieve reunification. No one or force can hold it back. Our message to some in the US: The trend of the world is surging forward. Those who follow the trend will prosper; those who go against it will perish. Those who challenge the one-China principle will be swept away by the trend of the times; those who turn back the wheel of history will be run over by it.”

This is seemingly a pointed warning at the United States and its allies who may seek to intervene in defence of Taiwan’s sovereignty in the event of a forcible “reunification” effort by mainland China.

Wang told journalists, “The one-China principle is a prevailing consensus in the international community, a basic norm governing international relations and also the political foundation and premise for China to develop relations with countries in the world. Facts prove once and again that upholding the one-China principle is a universal consensus and is where global opinion trends and the arc of history bends. The overwhelming majority of countries and international and regional organisations in the world stand firmly with the Chinese government and people and support China’s just cause of opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ and promoting reunification.

“Nothing shall hold hack the trend of history. The pursuit of ‘Taiwan independence’ is a dead end. External interference in China’s internal affairs and encouragement and support for “Taiwan independence” will lead nowhere. Using Taiwan to contain China is doomed to failure. The Chinese people’s just cause of opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ separatism and striving for national reunification will enjoy wider and wider understanding and support from the international community. The day will come when China will be fully reunified,” Wang defiantly said.

Final thoughts

Any potential conflict over Taiwan, whether directly or indirectly involving the United States, will have dramatic and potentially disastrous implications for Australia’s economic and strategic security in the Indo-Pacific, necessitating a comprehensive rethink about the way Australia conducts itself and faces the challenges in the region.

In this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

Dr Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessments explained to Defence Connect the importance of preparing Australia now, before it becomes too late, “I think what we’ve got to show what’s the vision for Australia, you know, what can we achieve and what you know if we go on the trajectory we are on at the moment. I’ll tell you what, you know, a lot of people, a lot more people in a decade’s time are likely to be either in really dumb jobs or maybe not have jobs at all, and in the society be a lot weaker and will be a lot less prosperous.

“So what we want to say is, look, there’s plenty of scope for doing more and smarter things, encouraging investment to do that, and then there will be some very, very interesting additional jobs and opportunities, a lot of high tech, and so on, I can tell you that, you know, talking to foreign investors, they’re quite keen on principle to work here, and do a lot more here and provide a lot more good jobs for Australians,” he explained.

This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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