(Bloomberg) -- Lai Ching-te’s tumultuous first ten days as Taiwan’s president signal he’s going to be more hamstrung than his predecessor in bolstering the island’s defenses, even as Beijing ramps up military threats.

Taiwan’s opposition-dominated parliament defied Lai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party — and widespread street protests — on Tuesday by updating a bill to expand lawmakers’ powers to investigate government projects and policies. 

The DPP immediately vowed to challenge the revisions, which would allow the legislature to summon the president for questioning and give parliament greater access to confidential documents. The bill is still awaiting Lai’s sign off.

For Lai’s government, the danger is that opposition lawmakers could potentially request information exposing details relating to secretive foreign defense deals. That could hurt ties with US allies crucial to helping Taiwan make more of its own military hardware, but who fear upsetting Beijing which vehemently opposes countries maintaining ties with Taipei.

“A level of secrecy is a necessary ingredient for Taiwan’s international security cooperation,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist with the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. “There is a certain balance to be struck between confidentiality and transparency.” 

The opposition Kuomintang, which favors eventual unification with China, has already vowed to form a task force to probe government corruption. Taiwan’s multi-billion-dollar initiative to develop military submarines has been pinpointed as a focus of investigations. 

The KMT blasted claims the bill could compromise defense secrets as “fake news” in a post this month on its official Facebook page. “The bill states officials or personnel can refuse to testify in the legislature on matters associated with national security,” it added.

Stocks in Taiwan largely didn’t react to the legislative changes, although some military related share prices fell.

The legal battle unfolding is emblematic of Taiwan’s divided legislature, after the DPP lost its majority in January’s presidential poll. That will frustrate Lai’s efforts to unite the global chip hub around his defense and foreign policy agenda, adding fresh tension to one of the biggest flashpoints in the US-China relationship.

The Biden administration wants Taipei to modernize its military to better counter the threat from Beijing, which has vowed to control the island someday by force if necessary. That risk was in focus last week, when China performed military drills encircling both Taiwan’s main and outlying islands.

Last year, then President Tsai Ing-wen unveiled a prototype of Taiwan’s first domestically assembled submarine, a landmark feat that’s part of a broader program to bolster naval defenses. Taiwan has increased military spending, with the island’s defense budget set to hit a record high of NT$606.8 billion ($19 billion) this year — or about 2.5% of gross domestic product. 

The moves come as Beijing increases the number of military vessels it sends into the waters around Taiwan. Adding to the tensions, China’s Coast Guard boarded a Taiwanese tourist vessel near an offshore outpost in February amid a spat over the death of two fisherman.

Taiwan’s submarine breakthrough was only made possible with the secretive help of other countries, with the island’s government drawing on expertise from Australia, South Korea, India, Spain and Canada, according to a Reuters report — a milestone for the diplomatically isolated island.

While the US — Taiwan’s main military backer — has approved $500 million in arms sales to Taipei, the ruling party still needs to forge links with overseas companies and experts if it is to reduce that reliance. 

Already, there have been alleged intelligence breaches. KMT lawmaker Ma Wen-chun, of the legislature’s foreign affairs and defense committee, is under investigation for leaking confidential information about South Korean nationals being involved in the initiative. 

South Korean police subsequently charged two people for leaking blueprints of a submarine to Taiwan, as officials in Seoul sought to avoid a backlash from Beijing. South Korea, like most nations, doesn’t have official diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Lai now finds himself embroiled in a protracted legal battle, as the DPP takes its fight to the constitutional court — a process that could take months. While the party had years ago proposed a similar bill, it argues this week’s changes were passed without due process, after the opposition bypassed the normal committee stage.

The DPP also says the amendments are unconstitutional. Under Taiwan’s separation of powers, the state’s supervisory branch has the ability to investigate and impeach officials — a system designed to prevent the legislature from having too much authority. 

Whatever the outcome, Lai’s first four years in office look set to be hampered by wrangling with his opponents in skirmishes that could spill over into greater unrest — as evidenced by the thousands who flocked to the streets to protest in recent weeks.

Taiwanese society looks more fractured under Lai’s new administration, said Dennis Weng, associate professor of political science at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

“This division is extremely concerning, making Taiwan more vulnerable to PRC influence,” he added, using an acronym to refer to China by its full name. “Even the most powerful weapons cannot protect a divided society.”

--With assistance from Chien-Hua Wan and Betty Hou.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.