Will Taiwan’s new, hardline premier mean choppier waters for cross-strait relations?

Appointment of pro-independence lawmaker William Lai Chin-te is likely to have ruffled feathers in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 10:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 10:30am

The appointment of William Lai Chin-te as Taiwan’s new premier has raised concerns over the future of cross-strait relations, given his tough, pro-independence stance and strong man image.

Analysts said that although President Tsai Ing-wen has the final say on all policies regarding the mainland, Lai, who could challenge her for the top job in 2020, might not let her have all her own way on cross-strait relations.

In a meeting in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Zhang Zhijun, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office under the mainland’s State Council, warned that Beijing would not tolerate any pro-independence moves by any individuals or groups on the island. He also called on governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to head off all obstacles and “continue in the right direction” towards the peaceful development of relations.

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Tsai announced in Taipei on Tuesday that Lai, 57, a former legislator and incumbent mayor of Tainan – a pro-independence stronghold in southern Taiwan – would replace Lin Chuan, a former finance minister with no political party affiliation, as the new head of Taiwan’s cabinet.

“With his academic and professional experience …. I believe he will be a capable premier,” Tsai said, adding that she would leave Lai to decide what sort of cabinet he was going to form. His predecessor had focused on the economy and reform.

The son of a coal miner in northern Taiwan, Lai, who obtained a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University and later practised medicine before becoming a politician, has long had the blessing of senior hardliners in the pro-independence camp to run for president. Several of them, including presidential adviser Koo Kuan-min, tried in vain to convince Lai to run against Tsai in the 2016 presidential poll.

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During a visit to Shanghai in 2014, where he gave a speech at Fudan University, Lai upset Beijing with his clear expression of the pro-independence stance of the Democratic Progressive Party and the determination of Taiwan’s people to continue to push for self rule.

Analysts said he was immediately blacklisted by Beijing, though he appeared to tone down his pro-independence rhetoric in June this year when he said he felt “affinity towards China, while loving Taiwan”.

“Such a change was obviously politically motivated for the sake of what might be his plan to run for the island’s top post in 2012, and had nothing to do with the improvement of cross-strait relations,” Chen Xincai, deputy director of the political research centre of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, said.

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Beijing was well aware of Lai’s motives, which were clarified when – following criticism from hardliners at home – he backtracked on his June comments saying he deeply supported Taiwan independence, Chen said.

“So it is unlikely that Beijing will see Lai’s appointment as a positive sign for cross-strait ties,” he said.

Edward Chen I-hsin, a political science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said that given his pro-independence stance, Beijing would keep a close eye on everything Lai said and did.

Justin Chen, a researcher at the Cross-Strait Policy Association, said that Beijing also did not believe Tsai was sincere in wanting to improve cross-strait ties, and that the appointment of Lai would stoke those concerns.

He said he feared there could be further friction if hawkish factions within China’s Communist Party emerge as the big winners from next month’s party congress.

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Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that will one day be fully returned to the mainland – by force if necessary – suspended all official exchanges and talks with the island after Tsai refused to accept the “1992 consensus” and its “one-China” principle – an understanding made in 1992 that is considered by Beijing as the political foundation for all exchanges.

Meanwhile, when Lai forms his new cabinet on Friday he will inherit a slew of problems, including a wide-ranging pension and labour dispute, a power supply problem, and assorted economic and national development issues.

Analysts said that if he fails to adequately deal with such issues, it could damage not only Tsai’s popularity rating, but also the ruling DPP’s chances in next year’s local government elections.

Over the past year, the president has seen her approval rating slump to 28 per cent from a high of 70 per cent a year ago.