TAIPEI: Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen named a staunchly pro-independence city mayor as her new premier Tuesday in a move which some analysts said would rile China.
China still sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, even though they split almost 70 years ago, and despite being a fully-fledged democracy the island has never declared a formal split from the mainland.
Beijing has said that any Taiwanese move towards a declaration of independence would prompt a military response.
New premier William Lai is currently mayor of the southern city of Tainan, a stronghold of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The doctor-turned-lawmaker has repeatedly stated his support for Taiwan’s independence in media interviews and city council meetings.
His appointment could further sour relations between Beijing and Taipei.
Chinese authorities cut official communications with Taiwan after Tsai took office in May last year, because she refused to acknowledge the island is part of “one China”—unlike her Beijing-friendly predecessor Ma Ying-jeou.
Beijing is highly suspicious of Tsai and the DPP, which is traditionally pro-independence.
“To Beijing, Lai’s appointment is one more unfriendly gesture by Tsai’s government and adds to the proof that she is not keen to improve cross-strait ties,” said Yang Kai-huang, a cross-strait expert in Ming Chuan University.
Tsai said she hoped Lai would deliver “good results” and praised him for being in tune with public opinion.
Lai will take up the position Friday after Tsai Monday accepted the resignation of unpopular premier Lin Chuan, a move seen as an attempt to revive dwindling public support for her administration.
The government’s popularity has been hit by a series of controversial policies, ranging from holiday cuts to pension reforms, as well as by worsening relations with China.
Harvard-educated Lai has won praise for his efficient management of Tainan, including his handling of the aftermath of an earthquake in 2016 that killed 116 people.
Earlier this year he seemed to temper his pro-independence message by saying he defined relations between Taiwan and China as “between friends”, but he still regularly advocates a split.
“I will shoulder the responsibilities to continue to deepen Taiwan’s reforms and transformations,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Lin’s cabinet is set to resign en masse on Thursday in a formality which takes place after a premier steps down. It is not immediately clear how many ministers will be replaced.
Tsai’s popularity has dropped from a high of nearly 70 percent when she came to power last year to below 30 percent in a number of recent polls, with some in the DPP blaming Lin for dragging down her support.