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Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te gestures as he attends a rally following the victory in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan on Jan. 13.ANN WANG/Reuters

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist.

For months, Lai Ching-te, who became Taiwan’s president-elect on Jan. 13, has been pledging to follow the policy of President Tsai Ing-wen in maintaining the cross-strait status quo. “Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country called the Republic of China,” Mr. Lai said, so there is no need to declare independence.

He has been saying this with the fervour of a recent convert, which is perhaps not surprising. During his long political career, he has repeatedly described himself as a supporter of Taiwanese independence; in 2017, while premier, he said in the legislature that he was a “pragmatic worker of Taiwan independence.” Since 1991, his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has also had in its party charter a clause calling for the establishment of “the Republic of Taiwan as a sovereign, independent and autonomous nation.”

During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Lai was challenged by the Kuomintang candidate, Hou Yu-ih, to “abolish the independence platform” so that Taiwan’s people won’t have to worry about war with mainland China. But Mr. Lai wouldn’t budge.

And two days before the election, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned that Mr. Lai would push for “separatist activity” and create a “dangerous situation” in the Taiwan Strait.

Ironically, Beijing isn’t the only world capital avidly listening to Mr. Lai’s every word; Washington is fearful that his utterances may aggravate U.S.-China tensions. In July, Mr. Lai said, “When Taiwan’s president can enter the White House, the political goal that we’re pursuing will have been achieved.” According to the Financial Times, U.S. officials asked Taiwan to clarify those remarks, as they seemed to suggest that Mr. Lai wanted the U.S. to restore relations with Taiwan, which were severed in 1979 when Washington established ties with Beijing.

The FT quoted former White House China official Dennis Wilder as saying that Joe Biden’s administration wanted to “head off a Chen Shui-bian type situation,” referring to Taiwan’s first DPP president who, in launching a 2004 referendum on the China-Taiwan relationship, led then-U.S. president George W. Bush to reprimand “the leader of Taiwan” for his willingness to “make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo.”

Clearly, there are doubts in both Beijing and Washington about where Mr. Lai really stands on independence – which is why the president-elect should remove the independence clause from the DPP platform. Such an act would serve to assure the rest of the world that he is determined to maintain the status quo for the next four years, as well as if he later wins a second term with a DPP legislative majority.

At the same time, he should call for the reopening of dialogue with Beijing, making it clear that peaceful unification would be a discussion topic – though of course, the final decision would lie with the people of Taiwan.

He might also call on China’s leader Xi Jinping to solemnly reiterate the mainland’s fundamental policy of striving for peaceful reunification. Such a statement should make it clear that as long as Taiwan makes no move to permanently separate from the mainland, that fundamental policy would not change. After all, the Anti-Secession Law enacted by Beijing in 2005 assumes there is already one China, which includes both the mainland and Taiwan. As long as Taiwan does not secede, then China remains whole.

The United States is the third party in this relationship. It currently has a policy of strategic ambiguity as to whether it will defend Taiwan if the island is attacked, although under the Taiwan Relations Act, it is obliged to provide Taiwan with defensive weaponry.

In 1972, when then-president Richard Nixon visited China, the U.S. took the position that differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should be resolved through peaceful means. In the Shanghai Communiqué – the first document signed by the two countries – the United States reaffirmed its interest in “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

This assertion, however, is rarely heard these days. It is time for Washington to make clear that its position has not changed. It was helpful that, when asked about the recent election, Mr. Biden said, “We do not support independence.” But the U.S. needs to go further and say that differences between the two sides of the strait must be resolved peacefully, and that Washington will accept whatever decision is made by the people of Taiwan.

This would be a good time for Mr. Lai to strike the independence clause. If the mainland responds positively and the cross-strait dialogue resumes, Taiwan will no longer be seen as a source of global conflict. Moreover, the U.S.-China relationship will stabilize, as both sides want. But first, Mr. Lai has to get the ball rolling.

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