During his press conference with international media on Tuesday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) surprised many when he said that “Now our enemy is not necessarily the people across the Taiwan Strait, but nature,” adding: “In the future, the armed forces of this country will have disaster prevention and rescue as their main job. So, they have to change their strategy, tactics, their personnel arrangements, their budget and equipment.”
To this end, Ma said, Taipei, would reduce the number of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters it intends to buy from Washington from 60 to 45, which would free approximately US$300 million to acquire helicopters and other equipment designed to deal with disaster relief.
At the same press conference, however, Minister of National Defense Chen Chao-min (陳肇敏) said “Disaster and rescue relief [are] one of the primary missions of the military” rather than the main one, which appears to contradict Ma’s comments.
Less than a day later, news broke that Chen had offered to resign over the government’s slow response to the Typhoon Morakot emergency. This, of course, will raise speculation as to whether Chen was forced to step down so that he, like Andrew Hsia (夏立言) the day before, could be a fall guy for the Ma administration, or perhaps that it was related to disagreement over what the Ministry of National Defense’s main priority should be — the threat of a Chinese invasion, or the forces of nature. Based on the discrepancies in Ma and Chen’s comments at the press conference, we can assume that the two men do not see eye-to-eye on what ought to be the military’s priority. Ma’s apparent shift, added to the removal of 15 Black Hawk helicopters from the shopping list, other cuts in the military and the watering down of military exercises such as the annual Han Kuang, all point to his assessment that China no longer represents a fundamental threat to national security. This, of course, despite Beijing’s refusal to remove the 1,500 short-range missiles it targets at Taiwan and its continued modernization of the People’s Liberation Army with unrelenting focus on a Taiwan contingency.
What should be immediately clear from Ma’s announcement is that the focus on nature as Taiwan’s No. 1 enemy is a tactical reaction to mounting criticism rather than a paradigm shift in national defense posture reached within the national security apparatus after a careful risk and threat assessment. Secondly, as any military decision is contingent on approval from the commander in chief — that is, the president — it was not Chen’s prerogative to decide when rescue operations should be launched. As such, Chen’s superiors, not him, should be shouldering the blame on this.
It is not impossible, therefore, that Chen’s “offer” to resign is in fact the result of the Ma Cabinet using the pretext of Morakot to rid itself of yet another military official who continues to see China as the principal threat, which dovetails with purges, under the guise of corruption probes, that appear to have overwhelmingly focused on military officials promoted during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration (this is not to say that Chen Chao-min was on good terms with Chen Shui-bian, given the slander case that the latter filed against him regarding comments he made about the 319 shooting incident).
It is not impossible, either, that cuts in military acquisitions could be a quid pro quo for Beijing’s acquiescence in the deployment of US military aircraft and personnel in Taiwan.
Finally, Ma also announced that the national Double Ten (Oct. 10) celebrations, as well as a planned trip to diplomatic allies in the South Pacific, would be canceled because of the disaster. While a celebratory mood would indeed be improper so soon after the disaster, there nevertheless remains a need for the nation to rally around the flag and celebrate, if perhaps in more sober fashion, what it means to be Taiwanese. But no. Celebrations will be canceled, diplomacy will be frozen, and for the first time in years Taiwan will not bid for membership at the UN.
Oddly enough, all three developments will be most welcome in Beijing, as they all incorporate elements of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Quid pro quo, again?