Called a transitional prime minister, Chen Chien-jen has more than he can chew on domestic and external fronts
Taiwan's former vice president and new prime minister, Chen Chien-Jen, is photographed on June 21, 2018 speaking at a press conference for the newly passed pension reform bill at the presidential office in Taipei. (Photo: AFP)
Taiwan’s former vice president, Chen Chien-jen, a Catholic, who became the country’s new prime minister at the end of January, can do a lot. But his term in office will be short as the East Asian nation goes to presidential and parliamentary polls next year.
Beneath all the harsh words and military maneuverings, Taiwan enjoys robust ties with China, which wants to annex it, and the US, which will come to its aid in case of an attack by the communist nation.
China, which lays claim to Taiwan as its renegade province, takes in 37 percent of all Taiwanese exports, which rose by 14.2 percent last year. China also provides 20 percent of Taiwan’s imports, which increased by 9.5 percent in 2022.
As neighbors, they face a raft of mutual risks from the depletion of marine stocks to global supply chain challenges. So, they cooperate one way or the other.
But still, Chen has to worry because there are enough strategic reasons why China won’t consider Taiwanese independence from the mainland.
Though the appellation “Taiwan” appears in brackets after the Republic of China, (the official name of Taiwan) and only 14 nations, including the Vatican, have diplomatic ties with it, Taiwan proudly occupies the United States’ eighth-largest trading partner position among the nearly 200 nations in the world.
"Chen will have to lift the fortunes of the party before presidential and parliamentary polls next year"
Though about 267 times smaller than China in size, Taiwan’s trade ties with the US are constantly strengthening.
For the world’s two superpowers, strategy is not the same as economics, which makes Chen’s days in office fraught with less risk.
A devout Catholic, Chen, who attended Pope Benedict's funeral at the Vatican as the president’s envoy, took up the new assignment as part of a reshuffle by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after it suffered heavy losses during local elections four months ago.
Chen will have to lift the fortunes of the party before presidential and parliamentary polls next year. It is a task within his reach, as all three players — Taiwan, China, and the US — will prefer a continuation of the status quo at least on the economic front.
An epidemiologist by profession, Chen was Taiwan's health minister during the 2003 SARS outbreak and played a key role in shaping Taiwan's response to Covid-19.
While serving as vice president from 2016-2020, he helped earn kudos for Taiwan from world health bodies and governments at the height of the pandemic. A few even went to the extent of hinting at admitting Taiwan to the World Health Organization (WHO).
However, the 71-year-old will have to watch out as Taiwan’s cordial trade ties can go topsy-turvy as the US has started a resource-depleting war against China.
As part of this strategy, the US has kept Chinese tech majors at bay and has given diktats to its Western and Asian allies to follow suit. In fact, some of them have fallen in line in banning Chinese tech firms like Tik Tok and Huawei.
Under the Indo-Pacific policy by the US administration to contain China, Taiwan is viewed as a crucial piece along with a string of nations stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Indonesia.
"After last year’s election rout, people in Taiwan are expecting a DPP image makeover"
Though the US still sticks to its commitment to a One China policy and to a strategic ambiguity policy, much to the solace of Chen, President Joe Biden has repeatedly and unambiguously said that the US has an obligation to defend Taiwan if attacked by China.
After last year’s election rout, people in Taiwan are expecting a DPP image makeover. No wonder Chen’s new cabinet has the most women ever. Already, Taiwan's economy is passing through a bad phase as it posted negative growth in the fourth quarter of last year, its worst since the global financial crisis in 2009.
On the domestic front, Chen will have to address climate change, a declining birth rate, income inequality, and being banned from all major global organizations and agreements.
It has been three years since the outbreak of COVID-19, but it shows no sign of ebbing. More than 16,000 Taiwanese have died due to the pandemic, and the number of new cases remains at about 10,000 to 20,000. Chen’s priority should be to reduce the death rate as most cases now display mild symptoms.
Though Chen is called a transitional prime minister, he has more than he can chew both on the external and domestic fronts and has to make a difference to the ruling party slogan of “DPP governance is quality assurance.”
Unless Chen delivers on the DPP’s promises, his transition cabinet, as claimed by the opposition, will be nothing more than old wine in a new bottle.
For the Chinese, land has historically been the focus of intense struggles. In the 20th century, the Communist Party mobilized peasants around the demand for land reform before seizing power in 1949.
Since it is a militarily and economically costly affair for China to annex Taiwan against the overwhelming desire of the Taiwanese people, the communist nation may not prefer democracy to thrive there.
Next year’s presidential polls are of vital importance as China has already started a cognitive war against Taiwan to counter the Biden administration's China containment policy, calling for caution on the part of Chen and his new cabinet.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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