Taiwan’s new premier risks Beijing’s wrath after affirming support for island’s independence

William Lai becomes first holder of his position to explicitly endorse island’s separate status from mainland China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 10:24pm

Taiwanese Premier William Lai Ching-te has openly identified himself as a supporter of independence for the island – a statement certain to incense Beijing.

In delivering his first administrative report to parliament on Tuesday, Lai was questioned by opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party legislators over his stance on some sensitive cross-strait issues – including whether he supports Taiwanese independence and his views on the mainland.

“I am a political worker who advocates Taiwan independence, but I am also a pragmatic pro-Taiwan independence theorist,” Lai, who took office earlier this month, said.

He is the first Taiwanese premier to openly acknowledge his pro-independence status.

Beijing has dismissed the prospect of Taiwan becoming an independent country as impossible.

Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Beijing resolutely opposed any form of Taiwan independence, by words or deeds.

“The mainland and Taiwan belong to China, and their relations are never state-to-state relationships, nor one China, one Taiwan.

As an inseparable part of the Chinese territory, Taiwan is never a country, and can never become one,” Ma said in a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday.

Beijing has repeatedly warned that it would attack the island if it declares formal independence.

The timing of the comments – ahead of the 19th national congress of the Communist Party of China – is likely to deepen the mainland authorities’ ire.

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Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province of China that must be reunited with the mainland one day, if necessary by force.

The island has had a separate administration since the end of the civil war in 1949 between Communist and Nationalist forces, when the defeated KMT forces fled to Taipei where they set up an interim government.

During the legislators’ queries, Lai, known as a pro-independence fundamentalist, also maintained that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are “independent of each other, with Taiwan being an independent sovereign state carrying the designation the Republic of China”.

Asked if his pro-independence stance contradicted a position he once described as being “pro-China, loving Taiwan”, Lai insisted there was no contradiction at all.

“Pro-China, loving Taiwan means showing goodwill and reaching out to China in a friendly manner, while keeping Taiwan at the centre,” he noted.

Addressing Beijing as China, Lai said what is most important is to strengthen Taiwan and to continue exchanges with “China, the Beijing authorities”.

He added: “We are willing to make friends with them.”

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Taiwan’s presidential office later issued a statement, saying that the government of President Tsai Ing-wen has never changed its position that “the Republic of China is a sovereign independent country”, nor has it changed its dedication to peace in the region and maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait.

It said Taiwan would not return to the old confrontational tactic in its dealings with the mainland and would keep its promise and show goodwill towards the mainland.

In her inaugural speech in May last year, Tsai promised to maintain the status quo.

She said she would handle cross-strait relations in line with the constitution of the Republic of China – the official title of Taiwan – a statement that essentially reflected her stance that she would not declare independence.

Lai’s comments have the potential to cause more trouble for Tsai’s government as Beijing, already upset by her refusal to accept the “one-China principle”, has suspended official talks and exchanges with Taiwan since June last year.

“With China’s Communist Party preparing for the 19th party congress to determine the course of the mainland in the next five years, what Lai said shows he has guts.

“But I don’t know if such guts will bring any risk and danger to Taiwan,” said Yeh Yu-lan, a former professor of national security and cross-strait studies at National Police University.

Liu Guoshen, director of the Taiwan research institute at Xiamen University, said the comments by Lai were an open challenge to Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan and the mainland were never “independent of each other”.

“As premier, Lai should not have said something like this”, Liu said, contrasting it with the relative leeway he had in his previous role as mayor of Tainan.

Liu added that the comments would only “defeat the purpose of the Tsai government in staying restrained over its cross-strait policy in the past year or so”.