China Power | Politics | East Asia

Taiwan Shuffles Cabinet in Signal to Biden Administration

The country named new heads of defense and China policy in what is being interpreted as an attempt to cool cross-strait tensions and work with the United States.

Taiwan Shuffles Cabinet in Signal to Biden Administration
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan introduced new heads of national defense and China policy this week, setting into motion a ministerial reshuffle that’s likely designed to align the island’s geopolitical strategy with the objectives of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Chiu Tai-san was sworn in on February 23 as the new head of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which handles policy pertaining to China, Hong Kong, and Macau. He replaces Chen Ming-tong, who was named head of the National Security Bureau (NSB).

Chiu, 64, served as minister of justice from 2016 to 2018. He previously held the number two role in the MAC from 2004 to 2005 in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of former President Chen Shui-bian.

Chiu said during his swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday he would attempt to improve ties with China, which have been frozen since Beijing severed contact with Taiwan after President Tsai Ing-wen assumed office in 2016.

Analysts have said Chiu is more moderate on China than his predecessor and his appointment could be an olive branch extended from Taipei to Beijing.

But it’s unlikely Taipei expects to make real progress in reestablishing ties with the Chinese government, which has hardened its stance on its eventual desire to assert sovereignty over Taiwan under Xi Jinping.

Instead, the move may be an attempt by Taipei to align itself with the Biden administration, which is expected to strongly support Taiwan’s sovereignty but is unlikely to proactively confront China in the manner of former President Donald Trump.

A spokesperson for Tsai said the reshuffle was made in response to shifts in regional and international politics – a probable reference to the Biden administration.

In December, Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy coordinator, Kurt Campbell, told a forum that “productive and quiet dialogue” between Beijing and Taipei is “in everyone’s best strategic interests.”

Chiu nearly echoed that sentiment on Tuesday, expressing his hopes that Taiwan and China could move toward “exchanges based on pragmatism.”

This does not mean Tsai is likely to alter the principles behind her government’s cross-strait policy, which is highly popular among the general public and continues to receive tacit support from the United States. Tsai has eschewed a push for formal independence by saying Taiwan is “already independent” and making Taiwan’s sovereignty a precondition for any talks between Taipei and Beijing.

Tsai continues to reject the so-called “1992 consensus,” which Beijing upholds as foundational for talks with Taipei. The consensus originally maintained that both sides agree there is “one China” but agree to disagree on what that “one China” means. Beijing, however, refuses to allow Taiwan the freedom to interpret “one China” as it sees fit – an idea considered sacrosanct by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which strongly supported the consensus until Xi equated “one China” with “one country, two systems” in a 2019 address.

Chiu said Tuesday Beijing’s insistence on the “one China” aspect of the consensus makes the supposed agreement “unacceptable to Taiwan’s people.”

The reshuffle this week also saw NSB head Chiu Kuo-cheng become the country’s defense minister, replacing Yen Te-fa, who will now serve as Tsai’s national security adviser.

As defense minister, Chiu will be expected to oversee a reformative period for Taiwan’s military, including an emphasis on asymmetrical warfare, presidential office spokesperson Chang Tun-han said at a press briefing.

Yen had become a lightning rod for criticism from defense watchers and former military officers who believed the evolution of Taiwan’s military was being hindered by bureaucracy and inefficient procedures. The army’s military preparedness has come into question from both domestic and international experts – and Taiwan cannot afford any lapses in preparation as it confronts an increasingly aggressive Beijing.