President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) won re-election on January 11, 2020, with domestic and foreign expectations for Taiwan to be stronger in the interests of its people. A stronger Taiwan also enables it to contribute as an important economic and security partner of the United States and other democracies. Contrary to conventional wisdom that her second inauguration on May 20 will bring changes to personnel, it behooves Tsai to decide on Taiwan’s national security leadership much sooner. This imperative to have these key officials in place ahead of her second term has been urgent even before the crash of a helicopter on January 2 that took the life of the Chief of General Staff. What are expectations of Taiwan?
Leadership for National Security
It would be advantageous if Republic of China (ROC) (Taiwan) President Tsai names key officials (incumbent or new) ahead of the official start of her second term, without waiting for her inauguration in May. Realistically, observers expect the soonest that Tsai can name the leadership team would be in February, after the Lunar New Year on January 25. Taiwan’s President traditionally focuses on officials in national security, namely, those who lead the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs, National Security Bureau, and National Security Council. Also, officials and observers expect Tsai to select top generals and admirals as well as representatives to key foreign capitals (particularly, Tokyo and Washington). Urgent attention is focused on decisions about the incumbents and the several candidates to be minister of defense and deputy ministers, with an expectation of leadership capability and willingness to engage internationally (not necessarily English proficiency).
First, Tsai’s decisions on leadership was made even more urgent after the tragic crash of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter on January 2, taking the lives of eight military officers, including the highest-ranking officer, Air Force General Shen Yi-ming (沈一鳴). Shen was the Chief of General Staff (CGS) and a potential defense minister (no matter which candidate won the presidency).
Significantly, General Shen was one of the key leaders to implement Taiwan’s shift to asymmetric warfare under its Overall Defense Concept (ODC). Especially in his last two positions as Deputy Minister of Defense for Policy and CGS, Shen was well known in robust dialogues with senior US officials and military officers of the Departments of Defense and State. The United States responded with heart-felt and high-level condolences, including a message from Shen’s counterpart, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. A Deputy Chief of General Staff, Admiral Liu Chih-pin (劉志斌), became the acting CGS. While Admiral Liu has visited the United States for recent meetings and previously interacted closely with Tsai as her aide-de-camp (including during her US stopovers), President Tsai will need to pay close attention to the appointment of the new CGS.
Second, the accident advanced the timeline for Tsai to provide certainty and direction in national security. This imperative already has been urgent given the intelligence, military, political, and other pressures against Taiwan from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under General Secretary Xi Jinping. The CCP’s ever-increasing threats to Taiwan include a development in July 2019, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force conducted its first combined, long-range air patrol in Asia with the Russian Air Force. Their bombers flew together over the East China Sea. Also concerning East Asia, Washington expects Taipei to sustain sanctions against North Korea and operation of a long-range radar to monitor missiles.
Third, Tsai can be expected to have more confidence and experience on defense policy and to spend much more time after her re-election on strengthening the military. Taiwan’s people should continue their democratic way of life, instead of fearing these elections as their last elections. As commander-in-chief, how will Tsai play a greater direct role in the chain-of-command, rather than mostly delegating to subordinate officials or civilian advisors? Will Taiwan request to be an observer—if not participant—in US-led exercises, including the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in 2020, and to discuss US-Taiwan military interoperability? Will Taiwan ask for assistance to foster career-oriented military training to boost recruitment? Will Taiwan request US weapons systems that might include Paladin howitzers?
US expectations center on Taiwan’s alignment with a realistic assessment of the PLA’s threats and urgent shift to the priority of asymmetric warfare and joint warfighting, rather than sticking to traditional, service-oriented views about fighters, tanks, and ships or submarines. While approving sales of M1A2 tanks, F-16V fighters, and Stinger, TOW, and Javelin missiles in 2019, the United States also looks to Taiwan to build up its special forces, military reserves, and cyber capability, and to empower junior officers and senior enlisted leaders. Consistent with the Trump Administration’s emphasis to Taiwan to implement the ODC, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2020 (enacted on December 20 as P.L. 116-92), specifically calling for regular transfers of US defense articles that are mobile, survivable, and cost effective to most effectively deter attacks and support Taiwan’s asymmetric defense strategy. These items might involve anti-ship, coastal defense, anti-armor, air defense, naval mining, and resilient command and control capabilities.
The US Defense Department and National Security Council (NSC) stress that Taiwan is not alone in the need to transform its military into a distributed, maneuverable, and decentralized force to survive and counter the PLA’s missile, air, and naval attacks. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey summarized this point as the operation of “large numbers of small things” at the US-Taiwan defense industry conference in October 2019. He pointed out that the Pentagon is adapting deterrence to prioritize mobility, survivability, and lethality. Instead of catching up, Taiwan’s military is expected to change along with US forces to challenge the status quo and advance away from being “prisoners of platform-based thinking” and only “incremental improvements” to designing new deterrence and defense against the PLA, as General David Berger advocates. This Marine Commandant critiques the US Marine Corps as “not optimized to meet the bold demands of the National Defense Strategy,” writing in a commentary in December 2019. Taiwanese generals and admirals would not declare such blunt criticisms of their forces. How will President Tsai bridge the gap between Taiwanese and US military cultures to adapt for effective deterrence?
In addition, the President can lead Taiwan’s will to fight and unity to counter the CCP’s threats. A perennial question is whether Taiwanese leaders of various political parties will forge a strong national consensus. In her New Year’s address, Tsai expressed one focus of consensus: never accept the CCP’s “one country, two systems.” Still, a new question concerns how Taiwan counters the CCP’s infiltration and interference. Another new issue is whether political parties competed in these latest elections in pro-Beijing versus pro-Washington directions with any damaging divisions in Taiwan. Will Tsai’s Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) capitalize on its electoral mandate to build a pro-Taiwan consensus with the Kuomintang (KMT) and other parties?
One crucial point of this consensus is Taiwan’s formal national name: Republic of China. This consensus counters the CCP’s objective to negate the ROC’s existence and annex Taiwan, no matter if the DPP or KMT won the presidential election.
Tsai can be expected to improve strategic communication to counter China’s challenges, not waiting until her second inaugural address. Advisors have encouraged her to engage more with the media. On the same day that Tsai won re-election and the DPP maintained its majority in the legislature, she spoke to foreign media reporting on the elections and referred to the country’s formal name. Tsai conveyed the voters’ confidence in the DPP’s commitment to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait without compromising national interests. She said, “Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free, democratic way of life, and how much we cherish our nation: the Republic of China (Taiwan).”
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo congratulated Tsai and Taiwan’s people for showing the strength of their democracy. The message expressed appreciation, first, for Taiwan’s strong partnership with the United States, and second, for Tsai’s commitment to cross-Strait stability. The message did not urge Tsai to resume cross-Strait talks, implicitly recognizing that the onus is on Beijing to work with Taipei to improve ties. A year ago, the NSC explicitly expressed this viewpoint in contrast to the CCP’s political warfare and typical media narratives that blame Taiwan or Tsai, after Xi read a speech that threatened force.
In addition to leveraging the results of the elections, Taiwan’s message can draw upon the people’s overwhelming preferences. According to polling data, the MAC reported in August 2019 that 84 percent oppose the CCP’s insistence on “one country, two systems.” Moreover, the MAC reported in October that 87.4 percent choose the cross-Strait status quo (whether with a decision later, indefinite situation, independence later, or unification later), while only 6.0 percent seek independence and 1.4 percent seek unification as soon as possible.
Taiwan needs to counter the CCP’s false narrative that suppresses Taiwan’s people in international diplomacy and organizations, raising concern even about the World Bank (as written by the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees). Tsai can highlight the facts that Taiwan has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United Nations (UN) did not state this claim. Indeed, UN Resolution 2758 of 1971 allowed the PRC’s legal rights in the UN and expelled “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” but did not address the status of or even mention Taiwan.
Last, a question is whether Tsai will resolve trade disputes. Speaking remotely to a conference in Washington in April 2019, she noted that “economic security is national security,” a point that Trump made in announcing the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2017. Taiwan seeks trade agreements, particularly with the United States. Washington hopes that Taipei will resolve disputes, particularly over US pork (using international and scientific standards). US expectations have affected talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), or TIFA talks, which have not been held since 2016.
The main point: It is in Taiwan’s interest for President Tsai to decide soon about top military officers and national security officials for US-Taiwan convergence in assessing and deterring the PLA’s threats.