On Sunday last week, hours after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) named former premier William Lai (賴清德) as her running mate for the Jan. 11 elections, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy sailed a carrier group into the Taiwan Strait. Based on experience, this was no coincidence.
Beijing will likely have been rattled by Lai’s reemergence at the center of Taiwanese politics and there is a good reason for this: He is an ambitious pro-independence politician with powerful convictions and a willingness to take on China.
China, which only understands the language of force, has clearly learned nothing from its interference in previous Taiwanese elections, and still believes an ostentatious display of military power close to polling day would turn most people’s spines to jelly, causing frightened voters to cast their ballots for a pro-China candidate.
Insanity, as they say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
The former premier upset normal proceedings by running against Tsai in the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential primary. However, since losing that bid, Lai has gone out of his way to show support for Tsai and mend bridges.
Tsai’s rapprochement with Lai should prove a wise decision, as it would help heal the rift within the party and head off the possibility of “revenge voting” by his supporters, which were threatening to split the pan-green vote and gift the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) the election through the back door.
Additionally, Tsai’s strong stance on the Hong Kong protests has given her a significant boost in opinion polls.
If her administration wins a second term, the ambitious Lai would surely be unwilling to take a back seat as vice president and would use the role as his own personal platform. By making Lai her running mate, Tsai has lined him up as her successor and rekindled the possibility of a Lai presidency.
Given his pro-independence stance, Tsai’s decision to bring Lai in from the cold will have gone down like a cup of cold vomit in Beijing.
Beijing will also be keeping a close eye on the fortunes of the KMT and will be well aware that the party could implode if it suffers a drubbing in the elections, having chosen Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), a political maverick, as its presidential candidate.
The KMT’s pro-unification and nativist wings appear increasingly irreconcilable. If the party does fracture, this would clearly make a three-term DPP government more likely — with Lai anointed as Tsai’s successor.
If Beijing believes Lai is likely to take over from Tsai, it could react in one of two ways: If the KMT appears to be a spent force, the CCP could decide to reverse its policy of freezing out Taipei and enter into a dialogue with Tsai, in the belief that this would be impossible under Lai.
Following a massive data leak, published by the New York Times, it is clear that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is facing a backlash within his party over the mass internment of minorities in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, with the unrest in Hong Kong showing no sign of ending, his advisers could push for a change of tack and engagement with Taipei.
Alternatively, under intense pressure and not wanting to appear weak, if the DPP wins in January, Xi could balk at the idea of a U-turn and double down on his hostile stance.
Taiwanese will have to wait and see how this plays out, but one thing’s for sure: Lai’s return to frontline politics has just given Xi another headache.
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