Taiwan’s new president is facing a political minefield

China is holding military drills around the island of Taiwan this week, just following the inauguration of a new president who advocates for a more robust defense against China. Meanwhile, the political parties in Taiwan are sharply divided, leading to legislative gridlock. From Taipei, Ashish Valentine reports that tens of thousands of people are hitting the streets in a series of protests.

China’s military sent dozens of vessels and aircraft on Thursday to several strategic locations around Taiwan to simulate a full-scale encirclement of the island. In response, Taiwan dispatched ground, naval and air forces.

The exercise comes just days after Taiwan’s new president, who represents a more defensive approach to China, took office.

In this photo released by the Taiwan Coast Guard, a Taiwan Coast Guard member monitor Chinese navy vessel operating near the Pengjia Islet north of Taiwan on Thursday, May 23, 2024. Taiwan scrambled jets and put missile, naval and land units on alert Thursday over Chinese military exercises being conducted around the self-governing island democracy where a new president took office this week. Taiwan Coast Guard via AP

At his inauguration on Monday, President William Lai Ching-te called on China to stop its political and military intimidation.

“China should jointly take the responsibility with Taiwan for maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Lai said.  

But Lai’s ability to address China is hampered by a rocky relationship with opposition politicians at home. 

Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te delivers an acceptance speech during his inauguration ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan, Monday, May 20, 2024. Lai Ching-te was sworn in as Taiwan’s new president Monday, beginning a term in which he is expected to continue the self-governing island’s policy of de facto independence from China while seeking to bolster its defenses against Beijing.Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Just days before President Lai’s swearing-in, Taiwan’s legislature had descended into chaos: a full-on brawl that left at least one lawmaker hospitalized with a concussion. 

Physical fights aren’t out of the ordinary in Taiwan’s legislature. What’s changed is that the president’s party finds itself in the legislative minority, and the main parties have traded blame for who was responsible for the fighting.  

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the faction allied with President Lai, says the opposition was trying to ram a package of bills through for a vote without time to discuss anything. 

Lawmakers from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, who had spent the day inside the Legislative Yuan opposing the controversial pieces of legislation, joined the protesters after midnight on Tuesday to thank them for their support.Ashish Valentine/The World

The main opposition, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), disagrees. The KMT favors closer ties with China and, although it doesn’t have a full majority, it has frequently proposed legislation alongside the Taiwan People’s Party, which ostensibly favors a middle ground between the two main parties. KMT legislator Chen Ching-hui, who was in the brawl, spoke at a press conference on Thursday. 

“Over the past eight years, the DPP has taken up the majority of the seats in the Legislative Yuan and has become used to getting their way in parliamentary procedure. Now that the Taiwan people have voted them into the legislative minority, they continually insist on getting their way,” Chen said.  

The bills themselves include an extensive range of proposals. One would give the legislature broad powers to summon politicians and ordinary people for questioning, and another would establish billions of dollars in infrastructure spending. 

On Tuesday, as the legislature was getting ready to read the bills through again, about 30,000 people gathered outside to oppose the process. Most of them were supporters of the president. 

Many had been there 10 years ago, during the student-led Sunflower Movement, which opposed a trade deal with China. Some even carried sunflowers to emphasize the links between these two protests.

Around 30,000 people gathered outside Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on Tuesday to protest several controversial laws proposed by the two main opposition parties.Ashish Valentine/The World

Lai Chung-chiang helped co-organize this week’s rally. He is with the Economic Democracy Union, one of the many NGOs formed out of the Sunflower Movement. 

“In a democracy, the power to question officials isn’t a bad thing,” he said. “But this bill would give the legislature the power to fine or jail people who give unsatisfactory answers.” 

Further protests are planned for Friday and next week as the opposition parties seek to use their legislative majority to pass the bills despite the pushback. 

Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei, sees the past week as a sign of gridlock in the years ahead. 

Whether or not there’s common ground, there’s no incentive for the two opposition parties to want to work with the DPP right now,” Nachman said.  

Meanwhile, the Chinese military drills have tested President Lai’s capacity to work alongside his political opponents. 

Taiwan President Lai Ching-te listens to the briefing of multiple Stinger missile launcher demonstrations during his visit to inspect the Taiwanese military in Taoyuan, Northern Taiwan, Thursday, May 23, 2024. Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Chinese ships and aircraft encircled Taiwan and several outlying islands and conducted mock strikes, continuing a pattern that’s steadily gotten more aggressive in recent years. 

China’s military says they are “strong punishment” for Taiwan’s “separatist acts.” 

Regardless of the gridlock, Nachman sees President Lai’s path as clear. 

“It seems like [President] Lai is going to have to focus on areas he can make a difference in, which thankfully is things like foreign policy,” Nachman said.  

For their part, the main opposition KMT spokesperson, Alexander Huang, said in a press conference today that regardless of their differences with the president, “We stand by our troops. We wholeheartedly support the strong defense of Taiwan.” 

Despite this seeming agreement, President Lai will not have a honeymoon as tensions rise within Taiwan and across the strait.

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