TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s president on Tuesday 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 William Lai to head up the government following the resignation Monday of Lin Chuan. Lin had asked to leave the post before local elections next year added an unwanted political element to his work.
The smooth transfer of office “represents that there is absolutely no problem with the communication and handing over of the functions within the Cabinet,” Tsai told reporters at a news conference attended by both Lin and Lai.
“All the reform projects will be handed over and carried on,” Tsai said.
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.
China cut off all contacts with 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 Tsai’s administration, causing her job approval rating to plummet to just 33 percent. 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.
China also uses its diplomatic clout to bar Taiwan from United Nations agencies, another sore spot with the public. The two sides were able to reach 23 economic, trade and transit agreements under the previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, because he agreed to the “one-China” precondition.
Lai suggested earlier in the year seeking common ground with China, according to local media reports, and 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 toward relations with China.
In June, Lai described his outlook on relations between the sides as “feel affinity toward 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 Lin Chong-pin, a retired professor and former deputy Taiwanese defense minister. “But we can’t say he won’t try again” after China’s ruling Communist Party holds a key national congress next month, Lin said.
However, Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said Beijing was unlikely to see 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,” Huang said.
The Tainan city news department director declined to answer a question Tuesday about whether Lai would hold to his earlier statements about China.
Neither Tsai nor the new premier mentioned China at Tuesday’s news conference, 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, Huang said.
“Our reform direction is already very clear,” Tsai told the news conference. “Premier Lai will lead the administrative team, eliminate extreme difficulties and do his utmost to sprint ahead.”