Since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) launched his re-election campaign, he has not been able to stop bragging about how great cross-strait relations are. However, the breach of the Taiwan Strait centerline by two Chinese fighter jets is putting the Ma administration’s China policy to the test.
When two People’s Liberation Army Sukhoi-27 fighters crossed the centerline in their alleged pursuit of a US U-2S high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft a few days ago, the two Su-27s did not return to Chinese airspace until they were intercepted by two Taiwanese F-16 aircraft.
Following media reports, the Ministry of National Defense confirmed the incident, saying it was in “full control” of the situation.
In addition to the F-16s sent up to intercept the Chinese fighters, the military’s missile system was put on standby, the ministry said.
The ministry classified the incident as a sudden, isolated incident and said the Chinese fighters did not behave provocatively. Pan-blue legislators made excuses for China, saying it would not deliberately provoke Taiwan and that there was no need to overreact.
Although cross-strait relations currently are relatively stable, China does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty and still wants to annex Taiwanese territory: Facts that cannot be denied and facts that make China Taiwan’s potential No. 1 enemy.
If current cross-strait trade, cultural exchanges and the detente are tricking Taiwanese officials and the military into believing that there is no tension between China and Taiwan, while the Chinese air force treats the centerline as an arbitrary barrier that can be crossed at will, then the Taiwan Strait will become an undefended area, open to Chinese aircraft and ships, and Taiwan’s national security will be all but lost.
Regardless of whether the transgression was unintentional or a deliberate attempt to test Taiwanese response capabilities, the ministry should not treat the incident lightly. As supreme commander of the Taiwanese armed forces, Ma should not maintain a low profile — silence at this time could be construed as weakness or tacit approval, and then Chinese fighter jets really would be free to fly through Taiwanese airspace at their leisure.
Since any sudden actions could lead to war, the government must not remain silent: It must take a strong position. The ministry should stand up and tell China to restrain itself so that similar incidents can be avoided and not escalate into serious threats. Ma must also stand up to China at an appropriate time. Maintaining cross-strait peace is no easy task and treating these incidents lightly could destroy that peace.
Although current cross-strait relations are relatively peaceful, the nation must remain proactive and keep up its psychological defenses. The military must not let its guard down and neglect national defense. There has been no change to the fundamental nature of cross-strait relations: China still posses an existential threat and extreme vigilance must be maintained when it comes to national security issues. The breach of the Taiwan Strait centerline could be a deliberate provocation or it could be the result of a careless pilot, but the government should request an investigation and an explanation from the Chinese defense ministry, along with guarantees that a similar incident will not happen again.
A simple transgression by a Chinese aircraft can reveal not only the response capabilities of the Taiwanese air force, but even more importantly, it can also reveal the extent of the nation’s psychological defenses. After that is exposed, the nation will have no more cards to play.
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