Taiwan Shuffles Cabinet Amid Frosty Cross-Strait Relations
Taiwan inaugurated a new Cabinet on February 26, 2018 after a major reshuffle in key national security, diplomatic, and cross-strait posts was announced three days prior. The replacement of several important Cabinet ministers comes amid extremely strained tensions between Taipei and Beijing and impending local elections, not unlike “midterm elections” in the United States, scheduled for November 2018.
Taiwan’s executive branch spokesman announced to reporters at a press conference on Feb. 23 that new ministers would be appointed to head the two ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense; and the Mainland Affairs and National Security Councils.
Yen Teh-fa, head of the National Security Council and a retired three-star Army general, was tapped to replace Feng Shih-kuan as Minister of National Defense, who stepped down to lead a government-funded national security think-tank. Secretary-General of the Presidential Office and former envoy to the United States Joseph Wu was appointed to replace David Lee as Minister of Foreign Affairs; Lee will succeed Yen as head of the National Security Council.
With regards to the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) — Taipei’s main government body handling relations across the Taiwan Strait — former MAC Minister Chen Ming-tong was re-appointed to head the MAC, replacing Chang Hsiao-yueh.
The appointment of Chen, who is associated with pro-independence politics and served as MAC Minister in 2007 to 2008 under staunchly pro-independence former President Chen Shui-bian, has led to much speculation about the Taipei’s future stance regarding cross-strait relations and the “one China consensus,” with certain analysts suggesting Taiwan, under current President Tsai Ing-wen, is pursuing a more assertive stance as relations with Beijing continue to deteriorate.
Remaining personnel changes on the ministerial level include the Veterans Affairs Council, which saw former chief of staff of the armed forces Chiu Kuo-cheng tapped to replace Lee Hsiang-jow. Minister of Labor Lin Mei-chu submitted her resignation for health reasons and was succeeded by deputy mayor of Kaohsiung Hsu Ming-chun.
This Cabinet shuffle is the second major shuffle for the incumbent administration of President Tsai Ing-wen.
Elected in 2016 alongside a commanding majority for her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s unicameral legislature, President Tsai’s administration became embroiled in a series of political battles — including a protracted battle over amending labor standards; controversy over DPP legislation regarding transitional justice issues during the Nationalist (Kuomintang, KMT) era; and a stalled attempt at pension reform — which sapped public support and saw approval ratings dip significantly since her inauguration in May 2016.
In the realm of international diplomacy, Taiwan suffered a series of setbacks since Tsai assumed office, with two diplomatic allies (Sao Tome and Principe in Dec. 2016, followed by Panama in June 2017) switching recognition from Taipei to Beijing and attempts by Taiwan to participate in international organizations (including the World Health Assembly and the International Civil Aviation Organization) stymied by a campaign by China to diplomatically isolate the self-governing island.
President Tsai’s first Premier, Lin Chuan, announced his resignation on Sept. 4, 2017, a little over a year after taking up the post. Citing the passage of several pieces of legislation crucial to Tsai’s agenda, Lin stated that he never had the intent to stay long as Premier and wanted to give his successor time to prepare prior to local elections in 2018. As the Premier appoints most of the Cabinet, Lin’s departure paved the way for the Tsai administration’s first full Cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of pro-independence William Lai to head the Cabinet as Premier.
The upcoming Nov. 2018 elections will be the Tsai Administration’s first electoral test. While President Tsai has received a bump in approval ratings with regards to her government’s handling of the recent earthquakes in Hualien, polling by several groups suggests that the gap between the governing DPP and the main opposition KMT has narrowed to a nearly negligible difference as voters feel increasingly disillusioned with either major party.
Continued deteriorating cross-strait relations between Taipei and Beijing are exacerbated by Chinese military drills, a Taiwanese investigation into an alleged Chinese spy ring, and a spat over airspace and airline routes in the Taiwan Strait that weighs down public perception of the Tsai administration while certain vocal DPP members have criticized ministerial incompetence and the government’s unclear China policy (especially regarding Tsai’s stance on Taiwanese independence).
This new Cabinet shuffle, with several longtime close allies of Tsai appointed to head key ministries, was read by several analysts as a response to “Taiwan sovereignty supporters” and a sign that Tsai may be seeking to play a more active role in foreign policy decision-making.