On March 9, a private first class soldier serving in the army’s Kinmen Defense Command was reported missing from his unit on Erdan Island (二膽島), which is near China’s Fujian Province.
The soldier could have been indicted under legal military procedures for short-term unauthorized absence or long-term desertion.
On Monday last week, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) said that the missing soldier was definitely in China. This has since been confirmed.
From a legal perspective, the case has escalated and is now subject to Article 10 of the Criminal Code of the Armed Forces (陸海空軍刑法), which states that “the word ‘enemy’ in the Code denotes any country or organization that engages in or whose force confronts with the Republic of China.”
The first task should be to ascertain the facts of the case, but how can this be done when the soldier is within enemy territory?
Some might expect the Ministry of National Defense to be responsible for asking China to investigate the case.
Although Article 137, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution says that “the national defense of the Republic of China shall have as its objective the safeguarding of national security and the preservation of world peace,” close examination of the structure of Taiwan’s armed forces reveals that they have no department dedicated to external liaisons or for communicating with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The Mainland Affairs Council asked the Straits Exchange Foundation to communicate with China, but using a non-governmental body to respond to the situation is just a short-term fix.
Especially in the current atmosphere of confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, the only long-term solution for handling such sensitive issues would be to establish an institutional mechanism between formal counterparts on each side.
During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union used a hotline to keep communications open. It was first used during the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states. At the time, the US Sixth Fleet and the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet were sailing close to one another in the Mediterranean Sea, so they needed a hotline to avoid misunderstandings about one another’s maneuvers.
Now there is a situation where the Taiwan Strait is gradually approaching the brink of war. The Economist even chose “The struggle for Taiwan” as the cover story of its March 11 edition.
The Ministry of National Defense says it does not fear war, but its fearlessness does not preclude establishing a hotline with the PLA to clarify one another’s military activities to reduce the possibility of any unnecessary clashes or misjudgements.
The case of a runaway soldier is as good a moment as any to set up such a hotline.
Shih Ya-hsuan is an associate professor in National Kaohsiung Normal University’s Department of Geography.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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