With the furor surrounding the death on July 4 of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) threatening to spiral out of control, it was only a matter of time before Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu (高華柱) stepped down to take responsibility for Hung’s death and the subsequent cover-up.
Although Hung’s family was right when they said on Monday that Kao’s replacement did not change a thing with regard to the case — as the 66-year-old was not directly responsible for the 24-year-old’s death — drastic action had to be taken and it was, for two main reasons:
For purely political reasons, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration needed to do something symbolic to show that it is being proactive about the case. When controversies snowball, it is not unusual for heads at the very top to roll.
However, it is evident from the public’s reaction and that of the Hungs that the move was insufficient. The family, and the many others who over the years have been unable to obtain the truth about the mysterious deaths of young servicemen, want the cases to be solved. They want answers.
By appointing Deputy Minister of National Defence Andrew Yang (楊念祖), who was Kao’s deputy on policy issues since September 2009, the administration may have taken a step in the right direction. By elevating him to the top position, the well-respected, academically inclined 58-year-old has become the first civilian to head the ministry under the Ma administration.
Pan-green media immediately criticized the move, saying that Yang not coming from a military background would make him an inefficient defense minister. However, the inclusion of an outsider and the possibility of making a clear break with the past might be just what the military — beset with serious problems over the Hung controversy and the struggling all-volunteer program — needs.
That is not to say that Yang, who spent much of his academic career studying the US-Taiwan-China triangular relationship, will not face internal opposition from the armed forces, which traditionally are resistant to change and external meddling. Reforming the military and addressing the corruption eating away at them from the inside while it attempts to shift from a compulsory to a volunteer-based force will be an extraordinarily complex challenge.
However, to say that Yang cannot achieve this goal simply because he comes from a civilian background is invidious and fails to take history into account, since many defense chiefs before him — including at the world’s largest defense institution, the Pentagon — also came from a non-military backgrounds and have performed their jobs well.
An additional benefit to Yang heading the ministry is the unusually good relations he has with the US military, the defense industry and academia, which certainly will pay dividends when it comes to facilitating exchanges with Taiwan’s principal security guarantor. His ability to interact directly with foreign officials in English and his keener understanding of the need to entertain good relations with Western media — a marked deficiency among leaders of the armed forces — will also be important assets at a time of heightened sensitivity to a possible defensive abandonment by Washington.
Taiwan military observers often argued that despite his position as vice minister, Yang had little influence within the ministry. His elevation to the top job will be an occasion for him to show what he is made of. Given the high stakes and the critical phase the military is currently in, it is essential that Yang be given the support and latitude he needs to prevent the armed forces — Taiwan’s last line of defense against Chinese encroachment — from collapsing.