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Tsai picks new premier with eye to easing China tensions

Tsai picks new premier with
      eye to easing
      China tensions
New Taiwanese premier William Lai. Photo: AP

Tsai picks new premier with eye to easing China tensions

TAIPEI — Taiwan’s president yesterday appointed a new premier seen as willing to reach out to rival China amid ongoing tense relations between the two sides.

President Tsai Ing-wen named Mr William Lai to head up the government following the resignation of Mr Lin Chuan on Monday. A reshuffle to replace the premier had been anticipated for months as Ms Tsai’s approval ratings dropped below 30 per cent by last month, a private foundation survey showed, from nearly 70 per cent soon after her 2016 inauguration.

Frozen ties with China, a massive power outage in the tech hub for Apple and other global firms, a backlash over pension reforms and a revised labour rule, are among the controversies that put pressure on Ms Tsai to replace Mr Lin, as she prepares for her 2020 re-election campaign.

The smooth transfer of office “represents that there is absolutely no problem with the communication and handing over of the functions within the Cabinet”, Ms Tsai told reporters.

“All the reform projects will be handed over and carried on,” she said.

Mr Lai, a 57-year-old Harvard-educated physician, served for 11 years in the legislature and since 2010 has been mayor of the southern city of Tainan. “I’ll redouble our efforts to reform and transform, for the benefit of the people of Taiwan,” he stated yesterday.

China cut off all contacts with Ms Tsai’s government more than a year ago after she refused to endorse Beijing’s position that Taiwan is Chinese territory. Over the past year, China has persuaded two of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to switch sides as it ratchets up its diplomatic and economic pressure on the Tsai administration. Since the sides split amid civil war in 1949, China has refused to renounce using force to gain control over Taiwan if it were deemed necessary.

Mr Lai suggested earlier in the year that he may be willing to seek common ground with China, according to local media reports. He also said the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which supports Taiwan’s formal legal independence, should have confidence to approach Beijing. The party normally takes a guarded view towards relations with China.

In June, Mr Lai described his outlook on relations between the sides as “feel affinity towards China, love Taiwan”. Amid criticism, he said he meant offering China a gesture of friendship to seek understanding.

“He tested the water and shrank back,” said Mr Lin Chong-pin, a retired professor and former deputy Taiwanese defence minister. “But we can’t say he won’t try again” after China’s ruling Communist Party holds a key national congress next month, Prof Lin said.

However, Mr Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said Beijing was unlikely to see Mr Lai’s appointment in a positive light given his pro-independence background.

“No matter what Lai talks about, he still supports Taiwan independence, so mainland China won’t give him much face,” Assoc Prof Huang said.

Neither Ms Tsai nor the new premier mentioned China during a news conference yesterday, focusing instead on domestic issues such as tax reform and energy supplies. Taiwan’s premier functions as head of all government ministries and commissions. Traditionally, the president rather than the premier sets policies on China and foreign affairs, Assoc Prof Huang said.

“Our reform direction is already very clear,” Ms Tsai told a news conference. “Premier Lai will lead the administrative team, eliminate extreme difficulties and do his utmost to sprint ahead.’’ AGENCIES