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FEATURE/Big shoes to fill as Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to shift posts

05/15/2024 05:40 PM
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Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (center) makes an appearance at the Europe Day celebrations in Taipei on May 4, 2024. CNA photo
Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (center) makes an appearance at the Europe Day celebrations in Taipei on May 4, 2024. CNA photo

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

In an increasingly complicated geopolitical landscape, Taiwan's newly elected president, Lai Ching-te (賴清德), has selected mostly familiar faces from the outgoing administration to help him navigate security and diplomatic challenges after he takes office on May 20.

Among them is incumbent Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), who is set to leave the position he has held since February 2018 and return to his previous post as secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC).

The 69-year old Wu will soon conclude more than six years heading Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the longest tenure of any Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) foreign minister since the country's first direct presidential election in 1996.

That may not seem remarkably long, but Wu himself described the job in a late 2023 interview as "probably the most difficult foreign minister job in the world," referring to Taiwan's diplomatic isolation due to pressure from the People's Republic of China (PRC).

The 12 foreign ministers prior to Wu served an average term of 2.3 years, sometimes forced to resign early with the loss of another formal diplomatic ally or two to China, which has sought to diminish Taiwan's international space and recognition of it as a sovereign country.

During Wu's tenure, the ROC lost more allies to the PRC -- eight in all -- than any other foreign minister since 1979, when the ROC and the United States ended official diplomatic relations.

It earned Wu the title of "minister of broken ties" by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), but he avoided getting the axe.

Despite repeated KMT urgings for him to step down, Wu said more than once he was willing to take political responsibility for the loss of a diplomatic ally, but that the decision was the president's, not his.

So why has President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) refused to let him go?

In part because, as Wu argues, he and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government have increased Taiwan's visibility internationally and enhanced relations with Japan, European countries, and the U.S.

Wu has been particularly active in Taiwan's warming relations with Central European countries, with Lithuania the most obvious example.

Ties between Taiwan and Lithuania have expanded since 2021. That year in July, the two sides reached an agreement to open reciprocal representative offices, and Taiwan opened its office in Vilnius on Nov. 18, 2021.

A China hawk

However, beyond any specific achievements, it may be Wu's outspoken style that has made him stand out from among his predecessors.

He has generally refrained from using the cautious "diplomatic" language of his predecessors and come to be known for his hardline stance against the PRC.

Part of that has been reflected in his attitude toward opposition Kuomintang (KMT) lawmakers, who are generally more China-friendly than Wu and the DPP government.

He frequently trades barbs with KMT lawmakers, who criticize him for losing diplomatic allies to China and for attributing all blame to Beijing without any intention of examining MOFA's own shortcomings.

Wu has also taken the step of suing KMT lawmakers twice in the last five years, a move previously unheard of because legislators have the power to freeze the MOFA budget.

Though often criticized for being too anti-China, many believe Wu has held up as Taiwan's foreign minister because his outspokenness and combativeness were able to counter PRC's "wolf warrior diplomacy."

At one point, Wu even reveled in being put on a Chinese list as a "Taiwan independence diehard."

"I've received countless notes of congratulations after being blacklisted and sanctioned, for life, by the #CCP. Many are jealous for not being recognized; some ask where they can apply for it. To deserve the rare honor, I'll keep fighting for #Taiwan's freedom and democracy," he wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter) in November 2021.

Simply being willing to go online is atypical for a Taiwan foreign minister.

Ever since MOFA opened its official Twitter account in April 2018, the tweets that ended with the initial of "JW" were written by Wu himself. In total, Wu made 894 posts on X himself, and among them 164 have generated more than 1,000 likes.

That willingness to engage with the public has extended to his approach with international media.

Unlike his predecessors, Wu, who can speak English fluently, has embraced every opportunity to speak to foreign media to talk about Taiwan's foreign policy and Chinese aggression.

According to MOFA data, Wu has done interviews with international reporters in more than 320 one-on-one interviews and/or media roundtables, generating more than 1,565 articles worldwide.

In contrast, he has rarely done interviews with local media, and when asked why, Wu said he has seen himself as the Taiwan government's spokesman to global media. "If not me, who will do the job?"

Catherine Hsu (徐詠梅), head of MOFA's Department of International Information Services who accompanied Wu in many of these interviews, told CNA that Wu almost never says no to any interview request from foreign media.

"He has taken every opportunity to speak up on Taiwan's behalf at every critical juncture, and has generated very positive outcomes," Hsu said.

Manharsinh Laxmanbhai Yadav (right), head of the India Taipei Association puts paints on the face of Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (left) during Holi celebrations at a New Taipei park on Sunday. CNA photo March 17, 2024
Manharsinh Laxmanbhai Yadav (right), head of the India Taipei Association puts paints on the face of Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (left) during Holi celebrations at a New Taipei park on Sunday. CNA photo March 17, 2024

More approachable minister

Within MOFA, Wu is also considered a more approachable and friendly minister, compared to his predecessors.

Most MOFA diplomats CNA talked to for this story, especially younger diplomats, had positive impressions of Wu, in part because he has been less bureaucratic and more willing to explore new diplomatic opportunities than others in his position in the past.

They say he has also improved housing and child care subsidies for diplomats stationed overseas and modernized MOFA dormitories to accommodate the needs of diplomats who return to Taiwan following overseas assignments.

Alexander Huang (黃介正), chair of the Taipei-based think tank Council on Strategic & Wargaming Studies and head of the KMT's international affairs department, was unwilling to be critical of Wu, acknowledging that being Taiwan's foreign minister is "a hardship position for anyone, and Joseph Wu is no exception."

Despite losing eight formal diplomatic allies, "Wu was able to divert public attention to celebrate the newly opened relations with Central and Eastern European countries," Huang said.

Himself a senior consultant to Taiwan's representative office in the U.S. during the 1990s, Huang also said Wu's "strong leadership style" put MOFA "under tight discipline, less influenced by retired ambassadors and veteran foreign service officers or experts across the domestic political spectrum" than it used to be.

In a sentimental X post on April 25 following the announcement that he would be stepping down, Wu bid farewell to his followers.

"While the job was heavy at times, it's been a tremendous honor to serve as foreign minister for the last 6 yrs. I appreciate the global support & brilliant colleagues at #MOFA. Will continue on in the same spirit. JW."

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