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FEATURE/First civilian defense chief in a decade, Wellington Koo faces reform challenge

05/15/2024 09:28 PM
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Incoming Foreign Minister Lin Chia-lung (left) and Defense Minister Wellington Koo. CNa file photo
Incoming Foreign Minister Lin Chia-lung (left) and Defense Minister Wellington Koo. CNa file photo

By Joseph Yeh, Matt Yu, Wu Shu-wei and Yeh Su-ping, CNA staff reporters

As Taiwan faces considerable geopolitical challenges from an increasingly aggressive China, the national security team appointed by incoming President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) to handle defense and foreign affairs has received much attention.

When Lai revealed his national security team on April 25, while some were veterans in their respective posts, his picks for two key positions sparked criticism because of the perceived lack of experience they bring to their new roles.

He appointed National Security Council (NSC) Secretary-General Wellington Koo (顧立雄) as the new defense minister and Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), current secretary-general to the president and former Taichung mayor, to take over as foreign minister.

Opposition politicians bashed the appointments, arguing that Koo and Lin lack the experience needed to serve effectively in their respective posts.

Amid the criticism, Lai said that Taiwan is best served by government officials with experience across various fields, given the current geopolitical situation, the expansion of authoritarianism and the restructuring of global supply chains.

In defending his decision, Lai said Koo has considerable experience in national security and defense, having served at the NSC for four years.

An attorney by profession, Koo was chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission from 2017 to 2020 and served as a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator-at-large from February to August 2016, prior to being appointed NSC secretary-general.

President-elect Lai Ching-te (fifth left) poses with newly named members of his national security, foreign affairs and cross-Taiwan Strait team in Taipei on April 25, 2024. CNA photo
President-elect Lai Ching-te (fifth left) poses with newly named members of his national security, foreign affairs and cross-Taiwan Strait team in Taipei on April 25, 2024. CNA photo

Only civilian defense minister in a decade

Koo, 65, is set to succeed Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), becoming the first civilian defense minister in over a decade in Taiwan. The most recent was Andrew Yang (楊念祖) during the administration of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Kuomintang, who was in the post for just six days before resigning over a plagiarism row.

Scholars interviewed by CNA said they believe Koo's appointment is intended to facilitate the desire of Lai's incoming administration to carry out fundamental reform of the nation's armed forces.

Kuo Yu-jen (郭育仁), deputy head of Taipei-based think tank the Institute for National Policy Research, said that despite the passage of the National Defense Act in 2000 which mandates that Taiwan's defense minister must be a civilian, most defense chiefs have still been retired generals, giving the military substantial scope to oppose adjustments to force structure.

Su Tzu-yun (蘇紫雲), a research fellow at Taiwan's state-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said that as a non-military personnel defense chief, Koo will have less baggage when it comes to pursuing arms deal packages.

When a defense chief is a former senior Army or Navy official, he is more likely to approve arms deals for weapons meant to be used by his old branch, Su said. "This is not just a Taiwan thing, it happens in militaries around the world."

As a civilian, Koo would not have the same baggage and therefore would make decisions on weapons purchases based solely on the big picture and Taiwan's overall defense strategy, he added.

Incumbent Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (front, left) and NSC Secretary-General Wellington Koo (front, second left) are pictured in New Taipei in April 2024. CNA file photo
Incumbent Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (front, left) and NSC Secretary-General Wellington Koo (front, second left) are pictured in New Taipei in April 2024. CNA file photo

In addition, as sitting NSC secretary-general, Koo understands perfectly Taiwan's overall national strategy and can thus make sure the Ministry of National Defense is better placed to play its role in that strategy, said Lin Ying-yu (林穎佑), an assistant professor at Tamkang University Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies.

After assuming duties as defense minister, Koo is likely to focus on transforming defense organization and building combat readiness, as well as push policy changes in the reserve force, all-out defense and asymmetrical warfare, he said.

Another major strength of Koo is his communication channels with the United States, Taiwan's major arms provider, scholars noted.

Koo has had frequent meetings with the U.S. side as NSC secretary-general and therefore has a direct channel to Washington, Kuo said.

Alexander Huang (黃介正), chair of the Council on Strategic & Wargaming Studies and head of the opposition Kuomintang's international affairs department, also noted that Koo has had more opportunities to be involved in military affairs, especially in the areas of security cooperation with the U.S., than others in Lai's new national security team.

"Being close to and trusted by President Tsai [Ing-wen (蔡英文)], Koo, despite being a civilian and having limited connections to the armed forces, is considered someone with whom Washington is comfortable working," he added.

President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and NSC Secretary-General Wellington Koo are pictured at a medal conferring ceremony in the Presidential Office in Taipei Thursday. CNA photo May 15, 2024
President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and NSC Secretary-General Wellington Koo are pictured at a medal conferring ceremony in the Presidential Office in Taipei Thursday. CNA photo May 15, 2024

However, there are still concerns that Koo, like other civilian defense ministers, will face strong push-back from the military, including different military branches and senior military personnel who will continue to question his qualifications as defense chief, due to his unfamiliarity with the armed forces.

As for Lin Chia-lung's appointment as incoming foreign minister, many have questioned his ability to serve that position as he has never worked in the foreign ministry.

Lin is a former transportation minister, lawmaker and mayor, which means he has experience in domestic affairs, Lai said, adding that "diplomacy is an extension of domestic policies" and as such Lin is well equipped for the job.

The 60-year-old Lin has served as secretary-general to the president since January 2023. Before that, he was ambassador-at-large in charge of Taiwan's digital New Southbound Policy initiatives, which were introduced by Tsai to enhance trade and exchange between Taiwan and countries in Southeast and South Asia, as well as with Australia and New Zealand.

Some have argued that the choice of Lin was more a goodwill gesture on Lai's part to DPP factions for overall party harmony, including Taiwan People's Party Legislator Huang Shan-shan (黃珊珊), who said Lin's appointment was apparently the "result of a power play between different DPP factions."

Lin began his political career in the early 2000s, serving in various positions in the administration of then President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), including an advisor to the NSC and Cabinet spokesman.

While at the NSC, Lin was in charge of establishing a Taiwan-U.S.-Japan three-way dialogue platform.

VP to play bigger role in diplomacy

Some of the scholars CNA interviewed agreed with this assessment of Lin's capabilities, but predicted that Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) will play a role in Taiwan's diplomacy.

It could take time for Lin to settle in as Taiwan's top diplomat, a job described by his predecessor Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) as "probably the most difficult foreign minister job in the world," due to Beijing's continued pressure over Taiwan's international space.

Alexander Huang said the designated foreign minister "should have no problem with the job," but warned that Lin's lack of experience in working with the foreign service and lack of familiarity with fast-changing international relations "may require him to devote considerable time and energy to his new post."

Meanwhile, Li Da-jung (李大中), director of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University, believes that Hsiao, Taiwan's former representative to the U.S., will play a role in helping Lin adapt to foreign affairs.

Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim addresses a forum in Taipei on May 6, 2024. CNA photo
Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim addresses a forum in Taipei on May 6, 2024. CNA photo

Prior to taking office, Hsiao visited the U.S. and Europe. In addition, after Lai announced Lin's appointment, Lai, Lin, Koo and Hsiao all visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be briefed on foreign affairs, according to the professor.

This suggests she may have a major role to play in Lai's diplomatic policy, Li said.

As to whether Hsiao will become the real decision-maker on foreign affairs, Li believes that will be decided by Lai, adding that currently, Wu, Koo and Hsiao are expected to shoulder the responsibility together.

Enditem/AW

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