In a surprise move, Taiwan’s president-elect, Mr. Chen Shui-bian, picked the current defense minister, Mr. Tang Fei, to serve as his prime minister. It is a good move: It ensures continuity in government, provides the new Cabinet with much-needed experience and will help reassure Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Mr. Chen was expected to reach out to the Nationalist opposition to fill the Cabinet. His party, the Democratic Progressive Party, has no experience in national government, the bureaucracy is filled with Nationalist stalwarts and that party still has a majority in the Parliament. But the choice of Mr. Tang was unexpected. Only last week, he had turned down the president-elect’s request to stay on as defense chief. And during the last weeks of the campaign, Mr. Chen was endorsed by Mr. Lee Yuan-tseh, a Nobel Prize laureate and head of Taiwan’s most prestigious academic research institute, prompting speculation that he would head the new government.
Nonetheless, Mr. Tang is a good man for the post. A former fighter pilot, he commands respect in the armed forces. That is vital, given questions surrounding the military’s loyalties after 50 years of Nationalist rule. (The military has said repeatedly that it will support the Cabinet.) Mr. Tang has won high marks for his reform of the armed forces. And as a mainland-born Chinese, he should reassure hardliners in Beijing about Taipei’s commitment to the one-China policy. Beijing will also take heart from the decision to establish a special office for Mr. Lee, from which he will concentrate on cross-strait issues.
For the new government, the most important task is to reassure Taiwanese that the DPP’s lack of experience will not prove an insurmountable obstacle to governing. Mr. Tang’s appointment is a sign that Mr. Chen understands the challenges and how to deal with them.
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