New Taiwan president Lai hails 'glorious' democracy

Lai Ching-te has toned down his rhetoric and has repeatedly vowed to maintain the 'status quo' on the Taiwan Strait, which means preserving the island's sovereignty while not declaring formal independence (Yasuyoshi CHIBA)
Lai Ching-te has toned down his rhetoric and has repeatedly vowed to maintain the 'status quo' on the Taiwan Strait, which means preserving the island's sovereignty while not declaring formal independence (Yasuyoshi CHIBA)

New Taiwan President Lai Ching-te on Monday hailed the arrival of a "glorious era" for the island's democracy, as he called on China to cease political and military intimidation.

In an inauguration speech, Lai also directly addressed the threat of war following years of growing pressure from China's to bring Taiwan under mainland rule.

Lai said a "glorious era of Taiwan's democracy has arrived" and thanked citizens for "refusing to be swayed by external forces, for resolutely defending democracy".

"In face of the many threats and attempts of infiltration we must demonstrate our resolution to defend our nation and we must also raise our defence awareness and strengthen our legal framework for national security," Lai said.

A staunch defender of Taiwan's sovereignty, Lai has been described by Beijing as a "dangerous separatist" for his past comments on Taiwan's independence -- rhetoric that he has moderated in recent years.

On Monday, he vowed his government will "neither yield nor provoke, and (will) maintain the status quo" -- a balance that preserves Taiwan's sovereignty while not declaring formal independence.

"I also want to call on China to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan," Lai said.

He urged Beijing to "share with Taiwan the global responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait... and ensure the world is free from the fear of war."

Lai is expected to boost defence spending and strengthen ties with Washington during his four-year term in a bid to deter China from seizing the island.

China considers Taiwan as part of its territory and has long threatened to use force to bring the island under its control.

Domestically, Lai also faces another challenge after his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost its majority in the legislature in the January elections, meaning it will be hard for him to push through his policies.

As he took office Monday, Chinese state media reported Beijing imposed sanctions on three US defence companies over their sales of weapons to Taipei.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai, saying he was looking forward to Washington and Taipei deepening ties and maintaining "peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait".

- 'Like water and fire' -

Monday's inauguration ceremony was held at the Japanese colonial-era Presidential Office Building in Taipei, with Lai's deputy Hsiao Bi-khim also sworn into office.

In a show of support for the island's democracy, eight heads of state and representatives of 51 international delegations attended the ceremony -- including from the United States, Japan and Canada.

More than a thousand performers showcasing traditional operas and dances took part in a celebration that also included an Air Force aerial formation to salute the new president.

Lai and Hsiao -- arguably better known on the global stage due to her former role as Taiwan's top envoy to Washington -- are both part of the DPP, which has championed Taiwan's sovereignty.

China has dubbed them an "independence duo".

Ahead of the inauguration, Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office said that "Taiwan independence and peace in the strait is like water and fire".

Chinese warplanes and naval vessels maintain a near-daily presence around the island, but in the days leading up to the inauguration, there has not been a significant uptick in the numbers.

Taiwan's defence ministry detected six Chinese aircraft and seven vessels around the island in the 24 hours to 6:00 am on Monday.

Lai has made overtures for resuming high-level communications with China, which Beijing severed in 2016 when Tsai took power, but experts say they are likely to be rebuffed.

- 'Go with the flow' -

With only 12 formal allies, Taipei lacks diplomatic recognition on the world stage.

While Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it has remained Taiwan's most important partner and biggest arms supplier.

Taiwan has its own government, military and currency, and the majority of the 23 million population see themselves as having a distinct Taiwanese identity, separate from the Chinese.

"I think it is better not to be too close to China or too far away from China -- it is better to maintain a neutral feeling," said Shen Yujen, 24, who is part way through his four-month military service.