A week after Typhoon Morakot wreaked havoc in southern Taiwan, US Marine helicopters landed here for the first time since the US switched political recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.
The helicopters are stationed at the US military base in Okinawa, Japan — less than 1,000km from Taiwan — yet they needed eight days to get here, thus missing the critical 72-hour post-disaster window.
This was the result of steadfast accommodation of Beijing’s “one China” principle by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his administration and their refusal to accept US aid, which potentially sacrificed hundreds of lives. Although the government has now accepted US assistance, new problems are emerging.
During a US State Department press briefing on Aug. 11, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley said the US could use its assets in the Asia-Pacific region to assist Taiwan and cited the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, in which the US was able to respond to the tragedy in Indonesia in a timely manner.
But Crowley said he would defer to the Pentagon in terms of what the government might deploy. This suggests that at the time, the US was disposed to sending forces in the Pacific to provide aid in the same way it did in response to the Sumatra-Andaman Islands disaster.
The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group was sent to waters off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in support of the rescue and relief effort in the aftermath of the tsunami. Since all roads to badly hit Aceh Province were cut off, a strong US airlift, search and rescue mission, as well as investigative operations, provided vital aid to Indonesia.
As initial rescue efforts depended on airlifts, the Abraham Lincoln played a crucial role in directing and coordinating air missions. The US also pointed out later that the command, control, communications and intelligence systems of the super-carrier provided crucial assistance within the first 72 hours of the tsunami — the period of time when it was urgent to identify areas in need of evacuation.
The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and Japan’s Interchange Association are the only two de facto embassies in Taiwan with branch offices in Kaohsiung, so they understood how seriously the typhoon devastated southern areas. Had the AIT’s Kaohsiung branch not reported to Washington on the disaster, the State Department, which has stuck to the “one China” policy, would not have expressed its willingness to deploy the military to join the rescue effort because of the sensitivity of US-Taiwan relations.
Incompetent but mindful of the “one China” principle, the Ma administration was acutely aware of the military implications. Reports say that Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC) suggested that the government turn down US aid and not call for international assistance until after receiving donations from China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait.
The government’s attempt to curry favor with China could thus have been the major cause of delays in the rescue effort. With this, the 72-hour window closed and countless people died.
Taiwan’s emergency response system is in chaos. The rescue effort suffered from delayed coordination with the US military because of the NSC, which opposed US aid because of its adherence to the “one China” principle. The NSC may now have trouble coordinating high-level communications between Taiwan and the US after doubts were aired by the State Department.