TAIPEI -- Taiwan tapped a former representative to the U.S. as its foreign minister Friday, part of a broader cabinet shake-up designed to strengthen the island's ties with Washington amid growing diplomatic pressure from Beijing.
Five new members will be sworn in Monday. Joseph Wu, secretary-general to President Tsai Ing-wen, will succeed David Lee. Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan will be replaced by Yen Teh-fa, secretary-general of Taiwan's National Security Council. Lee will in turn take over as the NSC chief. Other positions changing hands include the labor minister.
At Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which governs China policy, Chen Ming-tung, a National Taiwan University professor, will take the helm. Chen ran the council under Chen Shui-bian, the previous president from Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party who served in the 2000s. He replaces former diplomat Chang Hsiao-yueh.
Since taking office in May 2016, Tsai has sought to avoid inflaming tensions with China, which is wary of the party's independence-learning stance. She appointed Lee, who has served in governments led by the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, as foreign minister. But her administration's relatively conciliatory approach to Beijing has not worked well, leading to a policy reassessment reflected in Friday's reshuffle.
Amid Beijing's diplomatic campaign under President Xi Jinping to isolate Taiwan, the list of countries maintaining formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has dwindled to 20. China has also stepped up military exercises near the island, and last month began operating commercial flights that fly over the Taiwan Strait without consulting Taipei.
The public has grown more critical of the DPP and its efforts to avoid friction with Beijing. Tsai's government policy had an approval rating of 31.7% and a disapproval rating of 46.7% in a January opinion poll. The pro-independence cabinet appointments appear aimed at shoring up support in advance of November's nationwide local elections, largely seen as a bellwether for 2020 general elections.
Wu helped Tsai win the election in 2016 as the secretary-general at the DPP. Many see his deep American ties contributing to strengthening relations with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has taken a tough stance on China over trade issues.
Trump, wary of China's ascendance in Asia, appears to value Taiwan, which is also a key U.S. trade partner. As president-elect in December 2016, he spoke with Tsai by phone in an unusual direct dialogue between Taiwanese and American presidents.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed last month the Taiwan Travel Act, which would encourage visits by American and Taiwanese officials -- something Washington had previously avoided so as not to provoke Beijing. The bill went to the Senate, where it is still pending.