Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nature is Taiwan’s No. 1 enemy, defense minister offers to resign, quid pro quos?

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and the watering down of military exercises such as the annual Han Kuang, all point to his assessment that China no longer represents a fundamental threat to national security.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.

Three Noes

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?


Anonymous said...

WTF?! Does Ma get away with everything. It seems that EVERY SINGLE EVENT is used by the government to further approach China. Taiwan is one of the few remaining (developed) Nations that are actually threatend by another country and its president says the militaries main task is disaster relief? Give me a break!

We shall see if there will be another double ten celebration with this president... Taiwan is doomed if no miracle happens.

peter said...

Are they going to have to rename the Ministry of National Defense into the Ministry of National Rescue?

阿牛 said...


Taiwan Echo said...

Stepping on Taiwanese dead bodies to sell out Taiwan ... geesus ...

I outline Ma's blunders in the beginning of Morakot, hopefully people won't let him get away:

Ma Ying-jeou in the most crucial hours of Morakot

Thomas said...

I wonder what Washington's perspective is on this. I know that they would like to push Taiwan into BJ's arms, but Ma's announcement of further cutbacks as well as a change in direction from the military can't be welcome from a US military establishment that has long complained that Taiwan is not doing its best to defend itself.

Does this mean that Ma will officially give up trying to upgrade the Air Force too?

MikeinTaipei said...

Well ... as Defense News wrote, quoting a defense official in Taiwan: "Yes, he's [Ma] lost his mind."

We'll see how it goes. I have it from a credible source that behind the scenes, the presence of US military officials on Taiwan soil is actually higher than it's been since 1979.

Thomas said...

"I have it from a credible source that behind the scenes, the presence of US military officials on Taiwan soil is actually higher than it's been since 1979."

Out of curiosity, what does this mean? I doubt you mean the helicopters and rescue crews because that is not a "behind the scenes" operation. Do you mean clandestine operations?

Anonymous said...

It probably means the number of U.S. active duty personnel stationed on Taiwan. Two full colonels and probably at least six lieutenant colonels or majors.

This also is the first time, at since 1979, that there's been U.S. military operations on Taiwan. Military flights have come in and out, but not operating on or over the island itself.

The value of active duty personnel on Taiwan has been evident in facilating the U.S. response to the most recent disaster in Taiwan.

Finally, it makes alot of sense for Taiwan to increase the military's role in emergencies other than PRC use of force. Too bad it takes a wake up call, in the form of a disaster and an embarrassing response, to get Taiwan's political leadership to wake up to what should be obvious.

It's not just natural disasters. Taiwan is a very high risk for epidemics/pandemics due in large part to high population density, proximity to the source of the world's most devastating pandemics -- southern China and northern Vietnam.

And there is a false sense of immunity from terrorism/extremism. The attitude among the political leadership and military is that Taiwan is safe -- they've done nothing to anger the main terrorist groups in the Middle East/Central Asia or Southeast Asia. Reality is that this doesn't matter -- terrorists like soft targets with global effects. Taiwan is pretty soft, and it's role in the international economy is often underestimated.

There are alot of reasons for Taiwan to have a military force trained and equipped to manage a diverse range of emergencies. One rationale is that it would be much easier to get programs with clear military applications through the LY. Over the last decade, there have been a number of military programs that have been stalled or deferred due to lack of legislative support -- three satellite programs and a number of other C4ISR initiatives. All are inherently dual use in nature, but only their military or intelligence role was outlined in documentation forwarded to the LY. There's a much higher chance that these kinds of programs would stand a much better chance of getting approved if the military/intelligence aspects were downplayed and utility in disaster warning, recovery, and response were emphasized.

MikeinTaipei said...

Thomas: To answer your question, I am told by a defense expert here that US air force pilots and army helicopter pilots have flown in Taiwanese aircraft in the recent past on fact-finding missions, including piloting the IDF. There are also US military attaches and US military officers at AIT. There is also a contingent of Marines who will occupy the new AIT building once it opens to handle security.

Over the past five years, the expert told me, the US military has grown to the largest presence since 1979.