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FEATURE/Lai to assume presidency amid geopolitical and domestic challenges

05/18/2024 05:24 PM
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President-elect Lai Ching-te and Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim celebrate their election win on Jan. 13. CNA file photo
President-elect Lai Ching-te and Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim celebrate their election win on Jan. 13. CNA file photo

By Teng Pei-ju, Lin Ching-yin and Lai Yu-chen, CNA staff reporters

Vice President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) is set to assume the presidency on May 20, but he faces a carrot-and-stick strategy from Beijing which will put his administration to the test.

At the same time, Lai, who also serves as the chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will have to deal with the daunting task of steering the country without a legislative majority.

The doctor-turned-politician won the January presidential election, securing an unprecedented third consecutive term for the DPP through pledges to continue outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) policy toward China and safeguard Taiwan's security with his "four-pillar" plan.

President Tsai Ing-wen receives a delegation from Canada on Friday. CNA photo May 17, 2024
President Tsai Ing-wen receives a delegation from Canada on Friday. CNA photo May 17, 2024

The proposed plan underscores the importance of defense capability, economic security, partnerships with other democracies, and a stable and consistent cross-Taiwan Strait policy.

Despite Lai deliberately softening his pro-independence comments from the past and publicly saying he has "no plan" to declare Taiwanese independence, China continues to express strong disapproval of Lai, labeling him "a dangerous separatist" during his presidential campaign.

A four-term legislator and two-term mayor of Tainan, Lai was the country's premier from 2017 to 2019 under the Tsai government and later became her deputy in 2020 when she began her second term.

Traditionally regarded as a staunch advocate of Taiwanese independence, the 64-year-old has shifted in recent years to align himself with Tsai's more moderate stance, vowing to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing has also imposed sanctions twice on Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), who served as Taiwan's representative to the United States from 2020 to 2023, for engaging in what it deemed as activities promoting Taiwanese independence.

Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim attends a conference with members of the United States House of Representatives while she was Taiwan's top envoy to the U.S. CNA file photo
Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim attends a conference with members of the United States House of Representatives while she was Taiwan's top envoy to the U.S. CNA file photo

Like Tsai, the president-elect has called on the leadership in Beijing to start talks with Taipei. During a DPP leadership meeting in April, Lai even proposed dialogue between the "two governing parties across the strait."

However, prospects for official negotiations between the two sides remain slim after Lai takes office, Chang Wu-ueh (張五岳), an associate professor at Tamkang University's Graduate Institute of China Studies, told CNA.

Beijing insists on the acceptance of the "1992 consensus" as a prerequisite for any dialogue between the two sides of the strait, a stance the new government in Taiwan is "unlikely" to embrace, Chang said.

Chang Wu-ueh, associate professor at Tamkang University's Graduate Institute of China Studies. CNA file photo
Chang Wu-ueh, associate professor at Tamkang University's Graduate Institute of China Studies. CNA file photo

Beijing cut official contact with Taipei after Tsai, who rejected the consensus but called for dialogue without any political preconditions, took office in 2016.

The DPP has contended that accepting the consensus -- an implicit agreement reached in 1992 between the then Kuomintang (KMT) government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Chinese government -- would suggest endorsement of China's sovereignty claim over Taiwan.

Alternatively, the consensus has been consistently interpreted by the KMT as an acknowledgment by both sides that there is only "one China," with each side free to interpret what "China" means, even though Beijing has never publicly recognized the second part of the KMT's interpretation.

According to Chang, Beijing has been deploying the carrot-and-stick strategy toward Taiwan and will up the ante at the beginning of Lai's tenure.

Chang added that China's relentless pressure on Taiwan included the unilateral launch of two flight paths in the Taiwan Strait and the imposition of anti-dumping duties on Taiwanese polycarbonate in April.

Those measures were announced after a visit by former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT to China in early April, during which he met with China's leader Xi Jinping (習近平), the scholar said.

Members of the general public watch as former President Ma Ying-jeou (left) shakes hands with China's leader Xi Jinping (right) in 2015. CNA file photo
Members of the general public watch as former President Ma Ying-jeou (left) shakes hands with China's leader Xi Jinping (right) in 2015. CNA file photo

Likewise, despite Beijing announcing that travel restrictions on Chinese tourists to the Taiwan-controlled Matsu Islands would be relaxed during a KMT legislative delegation visit to China in late April, the presence of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) sorties near Taiwan continued to be detected, he noted.

Chang's comments were in line with those of Director-General of Taiwan's National Security Bureau Tsai Ming-yen (蔡明彥), who told a legislative hearing in early May that Beijing was employing such tactics to try and influence the incoming government's China policy.

The security official also said his bureau would closely monitor China's military activities between June and November -- when the PLA conduct routine military drills -- and see if further pressure is exerted on Taiwan.

Despite anticipating a lack of breakthrough in efforts to resume official dialogue between the two sides, Chang expressed optimism about the return of people-to-people exchanges in tourism and business after Lai's inauguration.

"What is certain is that private-sector exchanges, in tourism or other professional fields, will gradually open and expand," he said.

Director-General of Taiwan's National Security Bureau Tsai Ming-yen. CNA file photo
Director-General of Taiwan's National Security Bureau Tsai Ming-yen. CNA file photo

Geopolitical challenges aside, the Lai administration, with a new Cabinet led by Premier-designate Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰), will also likely face domestic headwinds due to the DPP's lack of a majority in the Legislature.

Potential opposition attempts to impede government projects could pose "the biggest challenge" to the new administration, said Wu Szu-yao (吳思瑤), the DPP's legislative caucus secretary-general, referring to the main opposition KMT and the smaller Taiwan People's Party (TPP).

"Every government proposal sent to the Legislature for review is going to be a tough battle," she said, stressing the importance of Lai's government making a bigger effort to communicate its policy plans with the public, to leverage support from the masses.

Wu also urged the new Cabinet to set aside controversial and politically charged bills to prevent legislative battles from causing damage to its "image" in society.

Similarly, Shen Yu-chung (沈有忠), a political science professor at Tunghai University, said the Lai administration will need to invest more heavily in its communication with lawmakers should it wish to push through budget plans, bills, and major policy proposals.

That may prove challenging after a legislative session on Friday, just three days before Lai's inauguration, that was marred by physical scuffles and verbal attacks between lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties over amendments that would give the Legislature additional powers.

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