Taiwan’s incoming government faces tough task to win back public

Taiwan’s government under President Tsai Ing-wen has entered its final month before president-elect William Lai Ching-te takes over on May 20. It has already faced a series of controversies and crises this year, the most serious of which involved mainland Chinese coastguard ships surrounding Quemoy, after two Chinese fishermen died in a collision with a Taiwanese coastguard vessel.

As a result, Lai could find his hands full as soon as he assumes office, especially if the situation around Quemoy – also called Kinmen – gets worse. Located just across from the mainland city of Xiamen and featuring a small garrison, Quemoy is vulnerable to blockade and seizure.

Since the death of the fishermen on February 14, multiple mainland Chinese coastguard vessels have entered Quemoy’s waters on several occasions. Taiwan’s coastguard initially denied there had been a collision or that there was video footage of the pursuit of the mainland vessel before later admitting the footage did exist. Taiwan’s coastguard minister apologised, but requests by Beijing for Taiwanese officers to be handed over for questioning have been denied.

The following week, mainland Chinese coastguard troops boarded and searched a Taiwanese cruise ship near Quemoy. Two Taiwanese fishermen were also detained on March 18, one of whom was handed back. The other remains in mainland custody after being found to be a Taiwanese soldier.

Given Quemoy’s proximity to the mainland, Taiwan would probably struggle to reinforce it should Beijing launch a military operation or decide to blockade it.

There have been reports that US troops have been training with Taiwanese forces on outlying islands including Quemoy and Penghu, although Admiral John Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, denied suggestions that US personnel were permanently stationed on Quemoy. As such, the situation around the outlying islands is precarious and could be a potential flashpoint for conflict.

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02:20

Two mainland Chinese fishermen drown after Taiwan coastguard pursuit

Two mainland Chinese fishermen drown after Taiwan coastguard pursuit

Former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou visited the mainland earlier this month and met President Xi Jinping for the second time, after an initial meeting in Singapore in 2015.

It remains to be seen whether the visit will have much effect on reducing cross-strait tensions, though the trip has been criticised by the island’s Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) government and others in Taiwan.

Ma, from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), was known for attempting to boost ties with the mainland during his time in office. As such, the Ma-Xi meeting is unlikely to significantly change the DPP’s stance towards Beijing.

Meanwhile, last month, Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng offered to resign after his son was investigated for allegedly soliciting prostitutes, though Tsai declined to approve his resignation.

That came amid controversy over Labour Minister Hsu Ming-chun’s response to a question about an agreement with India to bring migrant workers to the island. Hsu said Taiwan might start recruiting workers from India’s northeast region where people “have similar skin colour and diets like us”. She later apologised after criticism from local lawmakers, as well as domestic and international media.

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This followed an incident last November when reports of Taiwan hiring Indian migrant workers triggered heated online debate. Taiwan and India signed a memorandum of understanding in February that opened the doors to Indian workers, but the tone of Taipei’s response suggests it is concerned about the public reaction.

The government also faces a number of domestic problems, ranging from crime to energy supply worries and an ailing economy. The latter two are well known, but several recent incidents of violent crime have sparked concerns over law and order issues.

These include the killing of two police officers last month by a man driving a stolen pickup truck, and Hong Kong activist Chiang Chia-wei being stabbed during a drunken incident in Taipei.

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01:41

Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou calls for both sides of Taiwan Strait to ‘avoid war’

Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou calls for both sides of Taiwan Strait to ‘avoid war’

Tsai’s government has received praise from abroad for some of its policies, but domestically its fortunes have waned in recent years.

Lai claimed victory in January’s presidential election with about 40 per cent of the vote, ahead of the 33.5 per cent of Hou Yu-ih of the mainland-friendly KMT and 26.5 per cent of the Taiwan People’s Party’s (TPP) Ko Wen-je. Meanwhile, the DPP lost its majority in the national legislature, with many young voters choosing the TPP over the DPP and KMT.

Thus, with a number of incidents and scandals marring the build-up to his inauguration, Lai and his administration face a tough task to win the public’s trust while also having to deal with heightened cross-strait tensions. This means they have little margin for error and will have to hit the ground running.

Hilton Yip is a journalist and editor based in Taiwan

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