Taiwan scraps plan to send defence minister to US security conference

Island to send deputy, avoiding risk of stoking tensions between Washington and Beijing, analyst says

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 10:19pm

Taiwan’s defence minister will skip an annual security conference in the United States and send a deputy instead, a move that could avoid inflaming already tense relations between Washington and Beijing, observers said.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence said on Monday that deputy minister Chang Guan-chung would attend the US-Taiwan Defence Industry Conference in Annapolis, Maryland, late next month, as he did last year.

Taiwanese news outlets quoted an unnamed official as saying that Defence Minister Yen Teh-fa was originally willing to take part in the event but later decided that he had to reassess the nature and timing of the visit to determine if it would benefit Taiwan.

The conference, first held in 2002, is organised by the US-Taiwan Business Council and is a “non-official platform for the two sides to discuss defence industry cooperation and exchanges”, according to the ministry.

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The council invited Yen to the conference earlier this month and his decision on whether he would be the first Taiwanese defence minister to go since 2008 has been closely watched in Beijing.

There was also speculation in Taiwan that US Defence Secretary James Mattis might break with precedent and attend but a military source told the South China Morning Post that Mattis was not going.

“As there is no sign that Mattis might want to set a precedent by attending the conference at this sensitive time, the ministry believes it would be more practical to send the deputy for representation instead,” the source said.

Military officials involved in the discussions also said they felt that most of the participants in the event represented arms manufacturers rather than US agencies, so there was no need for Taiwan to send its defence minister, China Times reported.

If the defence chiefs had gone, it would have been the first such high-level exchange between the US and Taiwan since Washington approved the National Defence Authorisation Act late last year and the Taiwan Travel Act in March, analysts said.

Beijing, which considers the island a breakaway province to be brought back into its fold, has warned Washington against arms sales to Taiwan and high-level official exchanges.

Wang Kung-yi, political science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen could avert further antagonism of Beijing by sending a lower-level official.

“If Mattis is not going to the conference, there is no need for Tsai to send Yen to the event, avoiding the risk of further provoking Beijing and escalating cross-strait and China-US tensions,” Wang said.

According to the council, next month’s conference will address future US cooperation with Taiwan, the defence procurement process and Taiwan’s security needs.

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It would open with a discussion of Taiwan’s role in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, and look at how Taiwan could increase regional engagement on defence and national security issues, it said.

In 2002, Taiwan sent then defence minister Tang Yao-ming to the conference, while Chen Chao-min headed a delegation in the same position in 2008. In other years junior ministers and defence officials have attended.

Taiwanese news outlets said the island’s defence ministers had generally stayed away from the event because Beijing’s likely response could cause unnecessary problems for the US.