Taiwan Appoints New Minister of Defense
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
A Taiwan Air Force general was appointed minister of national defense May 18 after a reshuffle of the Cabinet in preparation for next year’s presidential election.
Air Force Gen. Lee Tien-yu, 61, moved up from his post as President Chen Shui-bian’s security adviser.
Born in 1946 in Nanjing, China, Lee Tien-yu served in the 427th (3rd) Tactical Fighter Wing at CCK Air Base from 1990 to 1992, led the Combat Air Command from 1998 to 2001, and commanded the Air Force from 2002 to 2004. He served as chief of the General Staff through February, when he swapped posts with Gen. Hou Shou-yeh, who was Chen’s strategy adviser.
The man Lee is replacing as minister of national defense, Lee Jye, has endured a rocky tenure since his appointment in 2004. Little progress was made on plans to buy submarines, P-3 Orion aircraft and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles; the budget was blocked more than 40 times by the legislature for a variety of political reasons.
Born in 1940 in Tianjin, China, Lee Jye served as a naval officer specializing in submarine warfare. He attended the U.S. Naval War College in 1995, making him one of the rare few Taiwanese officers to attend a U.S. military academy.
Alexander Huang, a Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies senior associate who lives here, believes that Lee Tien-Yu will be a better communicator than his predecessor, but trouble is expected to continue in the legislature over the blocked arms budget.
“Lee Tien-yu has a different personality from his predecessor,” Huang said. “He has been known as a communicator and a coordinator. He is expected to maintain a good relationship with the military correspondents and a smoother communication with the lawmakers. The opposition KMT [Kuomintang Party] will continue to challenge the DPP [ruling Democratic Progressive Party] government with no mercy and extend the annual [and the defense] budget gridlock. But unlike Lee Jye, Lee Tien-yu may encounter less criticism from DPP legislators.”
However, Huang believes that Lee Tien-yu will be a positive change.
“There are many problems with the MND [Ministry of National Defense], especially in the coming election year,” he said. “Lee Tien-yu may not be able to sufficiently deal with those long-term structural issues with only one year in office. However, his personality and willingness to communicate with the legislature and the press corps may slightly improve the image of the MND.”
Lin Chong-Pin, president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies here and a former Taiwan vice minister of defense, believes that Lee’s style and temperament might serve MND policy goals well.
“Gen. Lee Tien-yu, the new defense minister, has impressed me over the years for his always smooth and sincere handling of all occasions, including some otherwise awkward and difficult ones which I bore witness to inside the Ministry of National Defense,” Lin said. “I have never seen him behaving with a pompous air or losing temper. These traits should serve him well in the legislature, as most observers have already commented.”
However, Lin cautioned that it will take more than Lee’s talents of persuasion to overcome the political obstacles dogging the stalled defense budget in the legislature.
“On the other hand, the deadlock on the arms purchase budget is rooted deeply in the overall political stalemate between the pan-Blue [KMT] and the pan-Green [DPP] camps which split our society right down the middle,” Lin said. “It would be overly optimistic to lodge excessive hope on what an individual — albeit an able and influential one— may achieve in this particularly contentious time before the legislative and the presidential elections.”
Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs expert and research fellow at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, is also cautious about claims that Lee will influence the legislature to pass the defense budget.
“As for the defense budget, there is not much that the new defense minister can do, and it depends upon if the political atmosphere between the KMT and the DPP can be improved,” Ding said. “Also, the new defense minister will follow whatever agenda is given to him by President Chen, and because of the two elections, the new defense minister will be instructed to fulfill political goals more than defense issues.”