Vice President Lai Ching-te of Taiwan, a prominent opponent of Beijing’s claims over the island, is expected to adopt a more restrained approach during his visit to the United States. As a leading candidate in Taiwan’s presidential race, his visit will be closely watched for clues to how he might handle crucial relations with the US and China if he becomes president. It is anticipated that his visit will trigger an escalation of Chinese military flights and naval maneuvers near Taiwan, highlighting the risks of potential conflict over its future.
Lai, known as William, is seeking to assure Taiwanese voters and Washington that he can be a steady pair of hands. The Biden administration wishes to maintain the current status quo and avoid any surprise shifts by Beijing or Taipei. Lai’s visit is aimed at reaffirming Taiwan’s partnership with the United States and its allies and demonstrating that he is not a troublemaker.
During his visit, Lai has no plans for major speeches or meetings with prominent members of Congress. He will meet members of the Taiwanese-American community and give remarks at a dinner in New York. This lower-key approach reflects both his position as vice president and his political goals of projecting stability and reliability.
However, experts believe that the Chinese government is likely to stage a show of military force near Taiwan in response to Lai’s visit. Beijing aims to curtail Taiwan’s international contacts and has a strong dislike for the Democratic Progressive Party, which supports Taiwan’s separateness from China. The intensification of Chinese military flights near Taiwan since Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August suggests that Beijing will not let Lai’s stopovers go unnoticed.
Despite Beijing’s desire for Lai’s party to lose the presidential election in January, Chinese retaliation is expected. Menacing exercises around Taiwan could also hurt the chances of the Nationalist Party, which favors expanded contacts with China. However, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is unlikely to let these stopovers go unnoticed, as it would be seen as a sign of weakness.
Lai’s visit will also include attending the inauguration of the president-elect of Paraguay before returning to Taiwan. As a frontrunner in the polls, Lai’s comments about being a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence” have led to requests for clarification from US officials. As the transition in Taiwan’s leadership is uncertain and risky, the US will need to work with whoever is elected president.