News analysis

Will new Taiwan premier cross swords with Beijing?

All eyes on Taiwan's pro-independence Premier as he takes office tomorrow

As Taiwan's new Premier William Lai Ching-te takes office tomorrow and finalises his Cabinet to deal with domestic reforms, there is little doubt that the pro-independence advocate's stance on cross-strait ties will also be under scrutiny.

Many analysts believe his tough stance may rile Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province.

The appointment of the former Tainan mayor, a rising star of the Beijing-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party and a potential successor to President Tsai Ing-wen, comes amid worsening cross-strait tensions.

Beijing has cut off all communication channels because Ms Tsai has refused to acknowledge the one China principle, which Beijing set as a bottom line for stable cross-strait relations.

Having Mr Lai, 57, at the helm of the Cabinet may spark fears of further tensions as he has previously stated repeatedly his support for Taiwan's independence.

In the months before he was appointed, Mr Lai seemed to tone down his rhetoric, speaking about having an "affinity towards China, while loving Taiwan". But after a backlash from his "deep green" base of pro-independence hardliners, he back-peddled, saying he still stood for independence while wanting to be friendly and amicable towards China.

Mr William Lai bidding farewell to his Tainan City Council yesterday, ahead of taking office as the island's Premier tomorrow. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

In a meeting in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Mr Zhang Zhijun, the head of China's policymaking Taiwan Affairs Office, warned that Beijing would not tolerate any pro-independence moves by any individuals or groups on the island.

Chinese Culture University political expert Edward Chen I-hsin said Mr Lai's promotion will not reassure the leaders in Beijing.

"It is not going to be easy for Mr Lai to shake off his hardline image, and Beijing is not going to soften its approach towards Taiwan but may even step up pressure on the island to send a strong message," he said.

Still, some analysts believe that Mr Lai's inclinations may not have any impact on cross-strait policy.

This is because in Taiwan, the president has the final say on issues relating to foreign affairs, cross-strait relations and the military while the premier deals primarily with domestic policies and issues. But the premier is a member of the National Security Council chaired by the president.

Describing Mr Lai as a "passionate politician who speaks his mind", Taiwan-based cross-strait analyst Titus Chen said the Premier will need to choose his words carefully, especially under political pressure, because Beijing will be keeping tabs.

"The lawmakers will definitely question him and may provoke him... so he must be careful not to lose his temper because his words carry a lot more weight now and will be amplified," said Dr Chen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2017, with the headline 'Will new Premier cross swords with Beijing?'. Print Edition | Subscribe