Taiwan’s New National Security Leadership

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Taiwan’s New National Security Leadership

Insights from Jing Bo-jiun.

Taiwan’s New National Security Leadership
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Jing Bo-jiun – senior research fellow in Taiwan Studies at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA), University of Oxford is the 415th  in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

What does the composition of Taiwan President Lai Ching-te’s national security team indicate about his leadership priorities?

President Lai Ching-te’s top picks for his national security team are largely drawn from the same pool of Cabinet members appointed by his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen. This indicates his preference to continue the broad contours of Tsai’s national security policies, which were widely perceived as steady, unprovocative, and surprise-free, particularly in the eyes of the United States and other democratic partners of the island. To some extent, these policymakers have fostered trust with the Biden administration, and thus would arguably help manage cross-strait risks and maintain peace and stability in the region, at least until the U.S. elections this year.

According to Lai, his national security team leaders possess three key qualities. First, they have cross-disciplinary expertise and experience, ensuring a seamless transition to keep Taiwan moving forward. Second, they have already worked together in different capacities, which will help the team jointly shoulder future national security tasks, including defense, foreign affairs, and cross-strait relations. Finally, in the face of the rise of authoritarianism and increasing pressure from Beijing, they are committed to safeguarding the national interest.

Examine the appointments of Wellington Koo as the new defense minister and Lin Chia-lung as the new minister of foreign affairs. 

Trained as a lawyer before joining politics, Wellington Koo is the seventh civilian-background defense minister in the history of the Republic of China (ROC) and the first of this kind in a decade in Taiwan. Having served in key roles such as the head of the Financial Supervisory Commission during Tsai’s first term and the National Security Council (NSC) during Tsai’s second term, his “utility player” public image, in baseball terms, unsurprisingly drew criticism for his perceived lack of military experience, hence the doubts about his capability to lead the armed forces. 

On the other hand, Koo’s diverse background may help him facilitate interagency coordination and bring new thinking into the implementation of key defense tasks, including asymmetric warfare capability enhancement and ongoing mandatory military service reform.

Similarly, the new foreign minister, Lin Chia-lung, has held various posts in the central government, such as secretary-general to the president and minister of transportation and communications under Tsai. He was also elected as Taichung City mayor for one term. Despite serving as an ambassador-at-large after leading the transport and communications ministry, his appointment as the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) surprised many due to his relatively short track record in diplomatic work and U.S.-Taiwan affairs. 

As a DPP heavyweight taking on this new role, Lin’s main responsibility will be to sustain, if not expand, Taiwan’s international space and relationships with the existing 12 formal diplomatic allies, as well as key partners like the United States, Japan, and the European Union.

Explain why Tsai Ming-yen will remain as director-general of the National Security Bureau. 

Tsai Ming-yen is the only head remaining in the same post among the national security team examined here. Having served as the director-general of the National Security Bureau since January 2023, he is the third civilian-background head of Taiwan’s principal intelligence agency, a position traditionally held by former military officers. 

When announcing the members of his national security team, Lai praised Tsai’s extensive relevant experience since 2017, including roles such as deputy secretary-general of the NSC, deputy minister of MOFA, and representative to the European Union and Belgium. As an international affair academic, Tsai has a long track record of research on great power competition and geopolitics, as well as engagement with think tanks and track 1.5 and track 2.0 diplomacy. Lai arguably aims to utilize Tsai’s expertise and exposure in national security and diplomacy to broaden intelligence cooperation with Washington, Tokyo, and potentially Brussels, to manage the risks posed by Beijing.

Evaluate the appointment of Joseph Wu as the new secretary-general of the National Security Council. 

This is the second time that Joseph Wu is assuming the role of secretary-general of the NSC; the first was during the first year of Tsai’s presidency. His later career as the foreign minister for six years, the longest tenure for this top diplomatic post in two decades, enabled him to operationalize Tsai’s steadfast diplomacy approach. 

Given his background as a trained political scientist and his perceived outgoing personality, he seemed well-connected with academics, policy practitioners, and journalists worldwide. As the head of foreign policy, he was proactive in enhancing ties with the United States, criticizing the People’s Republic of China’s growing assertiveness towards Taiwan, and supporting Ukraine amid its war with Russia. However, he also faced pressure and criticism for losing eight formal diplomatic allies under his watch. 

With his return to the NSC, Wu’s role is transitioning to the backstage of the national security theater, where he is mainly tasked with crafting overall strategies related to cross-strait relations, U.S.-China competition, national defense, and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.

Identify the top priorities for President Lai’s national security team in managing U.S.-Taiwan relations, cross-strait relations, and Taiwan’s global diplomacy and foreign policy. 

First and foremost, on the international and geopolitical front, Lai’s national security team will prioritize maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Lai’s flagship “Four Pillars of Peace Action Plan,” laid out on the campaign trail and reiterated in his inaugural address on May 20, emphasizes the need to strengthen national defense, improve economic security, exhibit stable and principled cross-strait leadership, and push for values-based diplomacy. In doing so, he believes Taiwan and other like-minded democratic partners can establish a peaceful global community that demonstrates the strength of deterrence and prevents war, hence “achieving our goal of peace through strength.” 

Undoubtedly, the national security leaders also need to prepare for the outcome of the U.S. presidential race and a potentially more uncertain geopolitical landscape if Donald Trump wins, which may intensify already tense U.S.-China relations.

In the economic realm, maintaining the peaceful status quo is not only key for Taiwan to strengthen its economic prowess but also in the interests of its key partner countries. In such a scenario, they stand to continue benefiting from economic collaborations with Taiwan, given the island’s active participation in foreign direct investment and its vital role in the global supply chain, particularly in advanced semiconductor manufacturing and potentially the artificial intelligence industry.