William Lai’s Inaugural Address: Performing Taiwan’s Sovereignty

William Lai’s Inaugural Address: Performing Taiwan’s Sovereignty
Street lined with flags of ROC allies for the inauguration. Photo by Scott Simon.

On May 20, 2024, President Lai Ching-te (William Lai in English) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was inaugurated in Taipei as the 16th-term President of the Republic of China (ROC). The inauguration ceremony, which I attended, exemplified the performance of state sovereignty. ROC sovereignty is performed partially through the appearance of twelve “diplomatic allies,” states that maintain the diplomatic pretense that the ROC represents China. For the inauguration, Ketagalan Boulevard between the Presidential Building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was adorned with the flags of those states. Eight heads of state, including King Mswati III and Queen Inkhosikati of the Kingdom of Eswatini, took centre stage with the incoming President.  

The performance of ROC sovereignty is overshadowed by the reality of Taiwan, the former Japanese colony that has hosted the ROC in various manners since the 1945 end of wartime hostilities.  Most countries, including Canada since 1970, eventually recognized the reality of the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. But Taiwan is a conundrum because it was not transferred to the PRC in the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that ended war with Japan and regulated the disposition of Japanese territories. Chinese inhabitants of Taiwan became ROC nationals in the concurrent Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty. There are now competing performative claims to Taiwan, but also the reality of effective jurisdiction by the ROC and the human rights of the Taiwanese people.

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When states, including Canada, shifted diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC, Beijing imposed the condition that they adopt a “one China” policy, precluding simultaneous diplomatic recognition of the ROC. This would be a “two China” policy. Recognizing the reality of Taiwan and the fact that it has never been ruled by the PRC, many states developed instead substantive relations with Taiwan that fall short of diplomatic recognition. Nonetheless, Taiwan now ranks 33rd in the Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index, with diplomatic offices in 110 cities. So, what does attention to sovereign performance reveal about Taiwan’s status and the possibility of sustaining peace?

Lai’s Inauguration as Ritual Performance

The inauguration ceremony is composed of two parts performing ROC sovereignty. First, outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, escorted incoming President Lai and Vice-President Hsiao Bi-khim to the outdoor stage for public applause, before leaving the Presidential Building. After bidding farewell to Tsai, the President and Vice-President took their oaths and Legislative President Han Guo-yu passed the presidential seals to the new President. In the subsequent two-hour ritual, cabinet ministers and other high officials took their oaths. Foreign delegations, including a parliamentary delegation from Canada, presented formal congratulations. This rite-de-passage made Lai into President of the Republic of China. Nothing is said about Taiwan here. The public performance represents the relationship between the ROC state and Taiwanese society. In 2000, the first time the DPP elected a President, Chen Shui-bian was accused of instrumentalizing Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples to create a national identity distinct from China. This year, there was an aesthetic focus on cultural hybridity. After the indoor formalities, Lai and Hsiao returned to the plaza for Lai’s inauguration address. Finally, Lai and Hsiao joined a performance led by Indigenous performers that, with a rainbow flag, celebrated Taiwan’s progressive policies on LGBT+ issues.

Lai’s Speech

Lai’s speech, with thematic pillars of democracy, peace, and prosperity, indicated continuity with his predecessors. He mentioned the “Republic of China” over a dozen times, more than the previous President in her last inaugural address. He quoted the ROC Constitution: “the sovereignty of the ROC shall reside in the whole body of citizens.” He interpreted this as “The ROC and the PRC are not subordinate to each other.” Even this elocution represented continuity with Tsai’s position, as she has reiterated this point in several speeches, if not at her inauguration. This differs from the 2012 inauguration speech of former President Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), who defined “one China” as the ROC. Lai’s formulation nonetheless remains consistent with Ma’s call for “mutual non-recognition of sovereignty and mutual non-denial of authority to govern.” Lai offered China peaceful relations, including people-to-people exchanges through tourism and education. He emphasized that peace is the pre-condition for prosperity for all.

International Reactions

International reactions were quick and foreseeable. Democratic countries offered congratulations. China launched two days of military exercises, called Joint Sword-2024A, around Taiwan, announcing them as “punishment” for so-called “separatist acts.”  The United States expressed deep concern, saying that “using a normal, routine, and democratic transition as an excuse for military provocations risks escalation and erodes longstanding norms that for decades have maintained peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Canadian MP meets with President Lai. Photo from @ChingteLai’s X account.

China’s military exercises were also a performance of sovereignty, but scarcely comparable with Lai’s inauguration. China has to dance well beyond the horizon of Taiwan; whereas Lai held centre stage in Taipei. China’s claim relies on the threat of force; whereas Taiwan’s sovereign legitimacy is based on democratic elections. PRC claims are aspirational and peril world peace; whereas ROC sovereignty over Taiwan is reality on the ground and has undergirded prosperity of the Indo-Pacific for decades. Performance of sovereignty works best when performers are aligned with their audiences, which is why Taipei and Beijing seek to convince other states to support, or at least not oppose, their claims.

Taiwan is the lynchpin of the world economy and home to 25.6 million people who do not wish to be annexed by a hostile neighbour. It is difficult to imagine how a transfer of jurisdiction can happen without conflict and violence.


In Taiwan, the effective performance of sovereignty is more than theatre. Taiwan is the lynchpin of the world economy and home to 25.6 million people who do not wish to be annexed by a hostile neighbour. It is difficult to imagine how a transfer of jurisdiction can happen without conflict and violence. Lai upheld the status quo when he said, “Some call this land ‘the Republic of China,’ some call it ‘the Republic of China Taiwan,’ and some, ‘Taiwan’ But, whichever of these names we ourselves or our international friends choose to call our nation, we will resonate and shine all the same.” Whether or not he convinces domestic and international audiences, including China, will shape the future possibilities of stability or political upheaval.

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