The Irish Times view on Taiwan’s new president: a difficult start amid tensions with China

In his first week in office William Lai faced a challenge from the opposition as well as military intimidation from Beijing

Taiwan’s new president William Lai has had a turbulent first week in office, facing a serious challenge to his authority from the domestic opposition and military intimidation from Beijing. The parliamentary standoff has seen tens of thousands of people take to the streets in support of the president but it has also highlighted the challenges he faces.

Lai won last January’s presidential election with 40 per cent of the vote in a three-way contest but his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost its parliamentary majority. The Kuomintang (KMP) have allied with the smaller Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and two independents to form a majority in the legislative yuan.

This week, legislators passed a law that strengthens parliamentary oversight of the executive, allowing for the formation of investigative committees with sweeping powers to collect information. As a result, Lai will be compelled to answer questions from legislators.

Some elements of the new law are similar to proposals advanced by the DPP when they were in opposition. But it also creates a new charge of contempt of parliament which could see ministers and officials jailed if their parliamentary testimony is inaccurate or inadequate.


The demonstrators were angry both about the content of the legislation and also the way it was pushed through parliament. Many of those taking to the streets were veterans of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, when students occupied parliament in protest against an attempt to railroad through a new trade deal with mainland China.

At his inauguration last week, Lai promised to unite the self-governing island and called on Beijing to work with him in the interest of peace. But he adopted a tougher tone on cross-Strait relations than that of his popular predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, who trod a delicate line as she championed Taiwanese autonomy but sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing.

Lai said that Taiwan and the mainland were “not subordinate to each other”, a formulation the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) perceived as a declaration that they were separate countries. And he omitted Tsai’s habitual references to agreements which reassured Beijing that she was not seeking to interfere with the status quo.

The Chinese authorities responded to Lai’s speech with a two-day military exercise around the island featuring fighter jets carrying live ammunition and warships simulating a blockade. It was explicitly billed as a punishment of Lai.

Beijing’s aggressive action was an unjustifiable attempt to intimidate Lai as he takes office rather than engaging with the new president diplomatically. But Lai is also discovering the limits of his mandate, the need to work with the new parliamentary majority and the wisdom of his predecessor’s subtle approach to cross-Strait relations.