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?
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has over the past few months continued to escalate its hegemonic rhetoric and increase its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The US, in turn, has finally realized how its “strategic ambiguity” is increasingly wearing thin. Similarly, any hopes the US had that the PRC would be a responsible stakeholder and economic player have diminished, if not been abandoned. Taiwan, of course, remains as the same de facto independent, democratic nation that the PRC covets. As a result, the US needs to reconsider not only the amount, but also the type of arms
Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9. Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of
China constantly seeks out ways to complain about perceived slights and provocations as pretexts for its own aggressive behavior. It is both victimization paranoia and a form of information warfare that keeps the West on the defensive. True to form, China objected even to the innocuous reference to Taiwan at April 16’s summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Neither leader’s prepared remarks even mentioned Taiwan, out of deference to the Japanese side. Biden’s opening statement was modest: “Prime Minister Suga and I affirmed our ironclad support for US-Japanese alliance and for our shared security.
There is no ambiguity when it comes to war. Ambiguity begs for certainty and a lack thereof has historically led to war. History is full of examples: Europe’s and the US’ ambiguity as to how they would respond to Hitler’s growing territorial expansion in Europe was certainly a contributing factor to World War II. In the same vein, US ambiguity toward Japan’s expansionist militarism in the 1930s clearly led to the Pearl Harbor attacks that started the war in Asia in 1941. Ambiguity in a world with leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) will inevitably