Winston Li (李豫明), who passed away on Monday of heart complications, may have been little known to the public, but behind the scenes this implacable force of nature made several contributions to Taiwan’s security over the years — contributions that will linger on well after his premature exit.
Born in Taiwan on June 29, 1958, Li graduated from the Republic of China (ROC) Naval Academy in 1981 and received a master’s degree in acoustics from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in 1987.
After serving in various assignments in the ROC Navy, Li was posted to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington as deputy naval attache in 1997.
Photo: Courtsey of Wendell Minnick
He returned to Taiwan in 2000 and, prior to his retirement from the navy, worked as a section chief at N-5 (a section now known as the Integrated Planning Section) and later served as deputy director of planning at N-5 and director of intelligence at N-2.
Since 2009, Li had served as a legislative aide to Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Herman Shuai (帥化民), who is a member of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee.
Following his death, a number of officials, reporters and academics who worked with Li over the years — including Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) — paid tribute to his many contributions to the nation. Some of them shared their reminiscences with the Taipei Times.
“As a friend, Winston was as warm and generous as he was insightful and supportive — always willing to share his wisdom and good humor,” said Fu Mei (梅復興), director of the US-based Taiwan Security Analyst Center. “Winston was also a great patriot, so abundantly evidenced by his love for Taiwan and the ROC Navy.”
“He was a dedicated advocate and tireless fighter for causes beyond Taiwan, in particular US-Taiwan relations, both within and outside of defense and security circles,” he said.
“The mid-1990s were a depressing time for Taiwan in Washington, with Chinese agents of influence running amok in the [former US president Bill] Clinton White House and their success in blocking any new major arms sale during Clinton’s two terms,” said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington. “But one ray of hope during those years was this phenomenal navy Captain from TECRO — this fellow Winston Li.”
Among his many accomplishments, Li played a key role in Taiwan’s acquisition in 2001 of four Kidd-class destroyers — the largest warships ever to serve in the ROC Navy and a formidable platform carrying various radar, air defense and anti-submarine missile systems. Li also made substantial contributions to a two-phased approach for a Taiwanese submarine program, which has yet to come to fruition.
As well as navy or defense initiatives, Li also made numerous contributions to broadening Taiwan’s relations with other countries, including Australia and India, through many projects, most of which remain little known to the general public, Mei said.
“Non-political in outlook and single-minded of purpose, with the objective always being getting the job done, Winston was both technically extremely competent and bureaucratically savvy,” he said. “He understood, down to amazing detail, how everything worked: from the Aegis combat system, to how to get projects through Taiwan’s political labyrinth; from intelligence on People’s Liberation Army submarine developments to US congressional legislative process.”
For Wendell Minnick, who has long covered Taiwanese defense matters for publications such as Jane’s Defence Weekly and now Defense News, Li’s impact on Taiwan’s security was undeniable. And like many others, his first encounter with Li tool place at a watering hole.
“I met Winston in a bar in the ‘Combat Zone’ with a group of US Pentagon officials in 2001,” Minnick said. “He was a character out of a Tom Clancy novel. The Pentagon guys called him by a codename, ‘Grover,’ which I never fully understood.”
“Winston was one of these rare bulldog military types that got things done that needed doing. He was only a captain in the navy, but his influence was incredible,” he said.
It was largely Li who, after Taipei secured the Kidd-class destroyers — the first two of which were commissioned in December 2005 — ensured the navy’s commitment to move forward with the platform.
“At the time, Taiwan still wanted Aegis destroyers and was hesitant to procure the Kidds, but Winston knew that the US would never release the Aegis,” Minnick said. “The Kidds were the last chance Taiwan’s navy had at getting a major warship from the US.”
However, aside from his wealth of professional knowledge and enlightened intelligence, Li also had a feisty temperament, which did not always put him in the good graces of his colleagues or superiors.
“Winston’s ability to move the navy in the right direction did not always earn him brownie points in the upper echelons of the navy brass,” Minnick said. “He would never be made an admiral and was punished more than once for being too friendly to the press and the US military.”
Over time, fraternization issues became a problem for Li, but in Minnick’s view, that was the only way he could get things done.
“Taiwan’s military is somewhat schizophrenic. They need the US military, but don’t want to be seen as too dependent on US firepower,” he said. “This left huge gaps in communication between the two sides and Winston bridged these fissures.”
Li was so effective that on more than one occasion, the US Department of State tried to have him sent back to Taipei, Fisher said. However, he understood that the defense of Taiwan’s freedom was inextricably linked to the defense of US freedom and efforts to sideline him left him undeterred.
“Winston was the anti--bureaucrat who eventually carved his own place within a military bureaucracy, a diplomatic commando that was often ahead of and more effective than the diplomats and a friend who challenged us to live up to our own values,” Fisher said.
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, said of Li that in the absence of a permanent and professional staff handling defense and security issues for the legislature’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, he was the indispensable link between the legislature’s senior leadership on defense and security issues and those in the US working closely with Taiwan on defense matters.
“His deep knowledge of the subject matter combined with a love of country and Taiwan’s armed forces made for a capable partner,” said Hammond-Chambers, who interacted with Li in the latter phases of his career. “His boss is obviously one of the most important national security figures in Taiwan and Winston was the man behind the scenes offering counsel and carrying out orders.”
Friends and contacts of Li’s pointed to his “beyond reproach” sense of honor and incorruptibility, something that, in their view, cannot be said of everybody in the ranks.
“His maverick style and sense of honor clearly made him a character that few could be compared with,” Minnick said. “His loss will be devastating to the military and I know of no one in Taiwan’s military that compares to his maverick style and brute force of influence.”
“Taiwan will need hundreds of Winston Lis if it is to remain free,” Fisher said.
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