|A 'Snake Eye' Mk-82 says it all: the islands are ours|
There was a time, not so long ago, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) would accuse Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of being a “troublemaker” and taking unnecessary risks as it sought to gain admission to the UN or to expand Taiwan’s international presence. Those accusations, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US, were also echoed by the George W. Bush administration.
Chen’s detractors, then and now, would tell us that his efforts (though legitimate under international law) “heightened tensions” in the Taiwan Strait and “angered” Beijing into building up its military. During his campaign for the presidency in 2008, and since then, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) portrayed himself as Chen’s opposite, promising to turn Taiwan into a “peacemaker” and the Taiwan Strait into a “boulevard of peace.”
This is all very moving, but there’s a problem: Ma’s wonderful rhetoric, aside from appeasing Beijing, has failed to translate into action. In fact, under his watch, Taiwan has appears to have embarked on a program to militarize its foreign policy. The first instance of this was the decision to reinforce the Coast Guard Administration on Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the South China Sea, by providing its officers with AAA and mortar units with extended range, while ordering the armed forces to provide training. Taiwanese academics told me that such behavior was a means for Taiwan to make sure that other claimants — and by extension, the international community — did not ignore it. The same argument was made to justify Taiwan’s slightly more muscular stance on another island dispute, this time over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, which in the past week has been the focus of media worldwide as tensions escalate between Beijing and Tokyo.
In many ways I agreed with, and reported, those rationalizations, seeing them as an effective way to internationalize the matter by making sure Taiwan had a seat at the negotiations. As I argued in an editorial, doing so required a careful balancing act, as going too far risked undermining Taiwan’s image rather than gain it the attention it deserves. This strategy, furthermore, seemed to dovetail with Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, which would ensure a role for Taiwan in any future attempt at conflict resolution. (Another component of those initiatives, it must be said, was the fact that Ma, his cabinet facing abysmal public approval in the wake of a corruption scandal involving his Executive Yuan secretary-general and a stalled economy, could use a diversion.)
Now, I’m not sure whether this was someone’s idea of a joke or the result of a decision from above, but pictures emerged today, on the 81st anniversary or the Mukden Incident and as China was raked by anti-Japan protests over the Diaoyutais, of an F-16 aircraft at Hualien Air Force Base carrying a “Snake Eye” Mk-82 — a 500lb bomb with anti-ship applications — on which the characters 釣魚台是我們的 101.9.18 (the Diaoyutai Islands belong to us) had been inscribed.
Surely, as the world holds its breath hoping that China and Japan don’t come to blows over the islets, someone in the Air Force would have realized that such signaling on Taiwan’s part isn’t helpful. Surely this wasn’t what Ma meant when he promised to turn Taiwan into a “peacemaker.”
Update: Soon after media began reporting on this yesterday, Air Force Command was informed of the matter. The Ministry of National Defense said on Wednesday that while it was understandable that pilots would want to express their patriotism, and that pilots often inscribed markings on bombs, there were more appropriate ways to do so. The pilots will not be reprimanded, it said, adding that the Air Force pilots is charged with defending the nation and that the Diaoyutais are part of its sovereign territory. The F-16 in question was involved in a live-fire exercise at a range off Penghu on the 18th.