The timing of a major missile test at Jioupeng (九鵬) base, Pingtung County, last Tuesday, could not have been more unusual, coming a little more than a week before Taipei and Beijing were to launch informal talks on a trade pact.
As it turns out, Taipei has since delayed the meeting until the end of the month, but the major artillery test — which reportedly included the highly sensitive Hsiung Feng-2E (HF-2E) surface-to-surface missile — does not appear to have been the cause. In fact, Beijing’s reaction, which one would have expected to be more strident than its opposition to a visit by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, was to say nothing whatsoever.
The military has stuck to protocol and released very little information about the missile test, only mentioning that a malfunction forced the test to be abandoned. The Presidential Office, meanwhile, said it regretted that news of the missile test had been leaked, with the Apple Daily going as far on Wednesday as to claim that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had said he was “very satisfied” with the test.
The fact that a missile test on this scale was held at all under a Ma administration that seeks, above all, better relations with China, and at a time when the two sides are on the brink of signing trade pacts, is itself striking. Failure or not, it is difficult to reconcile the timing with Ma’s “pragmatic” approach to cross-strait relations.
Though it is shrouded in secrecy, it is hard to imagine that the test would have gone unnoticed by the US and China. Despite Washington’s opposition to Taiwan’s acquiring or developing offensive weapons — which the HF-2E is — we can assume that the US military, which maintains close ties with the Taiwanese military apparatus, was informed beforehand, perhaps during the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference in Virginia late last month, or at the Transnational Security Cooperation course provided by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a US-funded think tank based in Hawaii, earlier this year.
Such a test would also have been difficult to hide from China. Despite the remoteness of the base, which is located in the southeastern part of the country, such missiles would be picked up by Chinese radar.
The plan, therefore, appears to have been to keep the test secret and to avoid publicity lest it derail the careful, albeit precarious, balancing act engineered by Taipei, Beijing and Washington.
Which brings us to the most interesting side of the story: the source of the “leak,” which the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister paper) and the United Daily News referred to as a “reliable military source.”
While leaks are nothing new in the military, whistle-blowers usually make classified information public for a reason. In this case, given the sensitive nature and timing of the test, it is conceivable that the originator of the leak meant to put a spoke in the wheel of cross-strait negotiations, which have proceeded despite public apprehension. Had this gambit worked, Beijing could have reacted in anger and threatened to cancel the talks on a trade pact and an economic cooperation framework agreement. That it didn’t — in fact, Beijing said nothing at all about what should have been a “provocative” test — shows just how important those pacts are for China.
Many questions remain. Did the test really fail, as the military tells us, or is this information, which contradicts initial reports of a success, meant to downplay the importance of the test and ensure that cross-strait talks on economic liberalization can continue apace?