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Building Trust in Taiwan

Asian Wall Street Journal

March 30, 2001

By Russell Flannery, an associate editor at Forbes Global magazine.

Only a few years ago, one of the last places one might expect to see a photo of a smiling Chen Shui-bian was in the pages of Taiwan's Youth Daily News newspaper. Published by the island's 250,000-strong military, the newspaper has long lambasted supporters of Taiwan's independence from China, a policy embraced by Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.

Yet since Mr. Chen's inauguration as Taiwan's president in May, his youthful countenance has appeared in the Youth Daily News regularly. What's more, the newspaper these days even hangs photos of the island's leader in a window display outside its downtown offices across the street from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in the capital, Taipei. This week, for example, Mr. Chen appears there grinning with a puppeteer.

Such homage says much about how, despite a year's worth of domestic political turmoil, Mr. Chen has managed to quietly make headway on the military front. He's done so in large part by embracing security policies generally consistent with those of the outgoing Nationalist Party. Attempts at military reform have also been in line with the direction set by his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui. "

Before the election, there was a certain mistrust" between Mr. Chen and the military, says Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taipei-based thinktank. "Now there is less suspicion and the two sides have built up a working relationship."

Stable relations between Mr. Chen and the military establishment couldn't be taken for granted a year ago. Mr. Chen's triumph marked the first transfer of presidential power from the Nationalists in the 55 years they had ruled Taiwan -- much of it under martial law. Last year's direct presidential election was only the island's second, after Mr. Lee's victory in 1996. Mr. Chen won with a tepid 39% of the vote, giving him only a weak mandate to rule.

As the son of Taiwanese peasant farmers, Mr. Chen faced an uphill battle to build support among a military elite still dominated by a network of mainland Chinese families that moved to the island after the Nationalist government lost a civil war to the Communists in China in 1949. As a legislator, Mr. Chen was a harsh critic of corruption within the military. But his DPP, pro-independence political roots also made him unpopular. "The military has for a long time cultivated an anti-independence and anti-communist culture," says Lin Yu-fang, a professor and expert on military affairs at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University. "That hasn't changed."

Rather than publicly clash over differences, Mr. Chen has quietly built a working relationship with the military brass by ignoring his party's pro-independence slogans and sticking with the Nationalist position that Taiwan's government is already sovereign. From the night of his election, he has embraced the formal name of the Nationalist government when it moved to Taiwan -- the Republic of China. His inauguration speech went even further by including, among other things, a pledge not to change the island's name during his term unless provoked by China.

While formal ties with China haven't advanced under his rule, Mr. Chen hasn't rocked the boat either. One of his more controversial military ideas -- that Taiwan's military needs to be able to fight offshore, suggesting an offensive capability -- actually fits into a long-time Taiwan military strategy of "effective deterrence," says Maj. Gen. Tyson of the National Defense University. "Simply put, Chen and the military agree that we have to credibly fight back if the mainland attacks," he says.

Broader changes in Taiwan politics and society are also working to smooth the relationship between Mr. Chen and the military. Although Taiwan was ruled under martial law for nearly four decades until 1987, democratic reforms have increased notions of public accountability and civilian control of the armed forces. Taiwan's military signaled its support for democratic government and constitutional rule of law when its chief, Tang Yiau-min, said it would respect the results of the vote that produced Mr. Chen's presidential victory.

A decline in support among members of the military for the Nationalists in the last election has also indirectly helped Mr. Chen. Nationalist Party support waned in last year's presidential race after the party nominated Lien Chan over the more charismatic James Soong. Support for Mr. Soong, who came in second as an independent with 37% of the vote and who has since formed the new People's First Party, remains deep.

That break in past allegiances -- a process that actually began under Lee Teng-hui -- has benefited Mr. Chen, an outsider to the system, because it has focused members of the military on institutional rules rather than political relationships. A call from Mr. Tang for the armed forces to be politically impartial reinforces that trend. What the military is hoping for from Mr. Chen, analysts say, is budget support.

Still, the relationship is complex and problems lurk just below the surface. Many officers remain suspicious of Mr. Chen's ultimate policy goals regarding China, and there are concerns among the president's supporters about intelligence leaks, especially by those seen as favoring Mr. Soong and his more accommodating positions toward Beijing.

Moreover, Mr. Chen has made mistakes. For example, he named Tang Fei, the popular, reformist defense chief under the former President Lee Teng-hui, as his first premier in a widely praised move, only to dump him after a dispute over a nuclear power plant.

Luckily for Mr. Chen his current armed forces chief, Tang Yiau-min, has effectively played a mediating role between the new president and the military, which has helped maintain the island's political stability. In the area of weapons purchases from the United States, for example, Taiwan is asking for many of the same items as last year, such as destroyers equipped with AEGIS battle-management systems. Building on legislation passed while Mr. Lee was in office, the defense department this year is supporting new laws that enhance civilian oversight of the military.

However, the calm between Mr. Chen and the military may not last forever. The president, for instance, needs to find a way to shift more resources to the navy and air force, whose importance in deterrence is growing. That, of course, won't please the army's leadership. Yet, given the heated political battles over other issues that have preoccupied Mr. Chen since his election, the balance he has struck with the military to date is no small feat. It is that kind of pragmatism that is likely to guide his relations with the armed forces in the year ahead.

-- From The Asian Wall Street Journal