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Taiwan's new foreign minister David Lee: Right man for a tough job

Taiwan's new foreign minister David Lee: Right man for a tough job
Published 20 Apr 2016 

The incoming Taiwanese president Dr Tsai Ing-wen has appointed Dr David Lee, the country’s de facto ambassador to Australia, as the island nation’s next foreign minister. The announcement has received bipartisan support, even from the outgoing foreign minister. 

Dr Lee is one of the most senior officials from the country’s diplomatic services. He has served as the country’s de facto ambassador to Washington, Ottawa and as well as the European Union. The posting to the US is traditionally regarded as the most important and prestigious appointment.

He has a somewhat unusual background for the most senior diplomatic position under a pro-independence Democratic Progress Party administration. Ambassador Lee was born in the Chinese port city of Qingdao in 1949 and fled to Taiwan with his parents and grandparents after the Communist victory in mainland.
He is also a member of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which was defeated in January’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The KMT is traditionally seen as pro-China. He is also a student of the former chairman of the KMT Lien Chan.

President-elect Dr Tsai (she will be sworn in on May 20), should be given credit for appointing someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum. We can draw an analogy here between President Obama’s decision to keep Robert Gates, a republican Secretary of Defense after winning the White House and Dr Tsai’s decision to appoint Dr Lee.

It helps that Ambassador Lee did a stint as the ambassador to the United States during the President Chen Shuibian’s administration (2000 to 2008). This was a turbulent time for the diplomatic relations between Taipei and Washington. as evidenced in claims President Bush referred to President Chen as 'a trouble-maker' in a meeting with then Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003, though this was later disputed.

Dr Lee has unparalleled knowledge of the US and extensive connections in Washington. He began as a congressional liaison officer with Taiwan’s Coordination Council for North American Affairs from 1982 to 1988. He also served as the head of mission in Boston between 1993 and 1996.

He also wrote his doctoral dissertation on the US Congress and its foreign policy towards Taiwan at the University of Virginia. His thesis was subsequently published The Making of the Taiwan Relation Act: Twenty Years in Retrospect by the University of Oxford Press.
Over time Dr Lee has built personal rapport with foreign policy stalwarts like former Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who served as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from 1985 to 1987 and from 2003 to 2007. Dr Lee leveraged his close personal relations with leading senators to gain access to senior State Department officials who are often reluctant to see Taiwanese diplomats for the fear of offending China.

One of the key policy challenges for the President-elect Dr Tsai is the handling of the trilateral relationship between Taipei, Washington and Beijing. As an experienced pair of hands, Dr Lee will help the new president tackle this most sensitive issue.

Photo courtesy of Facebook user Taiwan America Student Conference

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