Taiwan chooses to shoot blanks

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
TAIPEI – Roughly concurring with the mediagenic naval maneuvers jointly being held by China and Russia in the West Pacific and the United States-Philippine Balikatan drills in the South China Sea, the Taiwanese military conducted its annual Han Kuang exercises.

However, although close to a quarter of a million military personnel and all of the island’s weaponry systems were involved, not a single bullet was fired, with the sounds of shooting aired by loud speakers.

The Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) government under Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou came up with a startling explanation: live-fire drills were excluded in order to reduce carbon emissions. While the Chinese side is certain to appreciate Ma’s

eco-friendly attitude of late, not everybody on the island buys the green spin.

Han Kuang, Taiwan’s largest annual war games involving the army, air force and navy, have been held since the mid-1980s, which was an era in which an invasion attempt by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could have happened almost on any given day.

The main strategic objective has traditionally been to find out how many days Taiwanese forces could hold on against the PLA attacks before Washington sent its military to interfere while at the same time sorting out ways to prolong that period.

Han Kuang used to come along with massive live-fire exercises, but since Ma took office in 2008 and spectacularly improved ties with Beijing, this has gradually changed.

In 2008 – the first year of his tenure – few shots were fired, and in the following ones they were gradually scrapped.

But the KMT government ordered the war games to turn tamer than ever this time around. Ma chose to skip the opening days of the five-day spectacle, making him the first president and commander-in-chief of armed forces in 28 years to do so, and after he eventually showed up on the last day, some accounts by local media put the duration of his visit at 30 minutes, others at six.

“I have other appointments to keep,” Ma was cited as saying. Comforting civilian spectators, who were disappointed that the sound of gunfire came from speakers instead of genuine weapons, Ma reportedly promised to consider live-fire drills next year.

That real shots normally fired in maneuvers aim to meet a number of objectives, and impressing home crowds, as well as the enemy’s, are two of them.

Apart from those, combat situations can be simulated much more closely with live fire, and perhaps most importantly, the reliability of weapons and equipment tested. If the Taiwanese government says it chooses to scrap or postpone indefinitely live-fire artillery drills because of environmental reasons, and the president – unlike his predecessors – shows up only briefly, it sends political signals and will likely bring about repercussions.

In an interview with Asia Times Online, Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, shed light on what those could be, beginning with the effects the gradually declining significance of Han Kuang are having on the Taiwanese public’s psyche.

“Under previous administrations, Han Kuang was first and foremost a manifestation seen by all that Taiwan is on the USA’s side and vice versa. In the past, observers sent by the US Pacific Command were always there, but under Ma, this stopped,” Chen said.

“Han Kuang has thus become a meaningless joke, which confuses the population. They begin doubting that the US would come to Taiwan’s defense.”

Chen elaborated that although the US is not explicitly legally bound to interfere if the PLA were to attack Taiwan, the visible US participation in Han Kuang deliberately caused ambiguity as to whether, and if so at what stage, US forces would step in, making the Chinese not wanting to take the risk in the first place.

“Beijing thus gets a better chance of pocketing the island without battle. Just as Sun Tze taught – victory without a bullet,” Chen said in reference to the much-quoted ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who is credited for having authored the military treatise The Art of War.

It’s obvious that the other side of the Taiwan Strait received Ma’s signal. Particularly telling is how coverage by Chinese state media on Han Kuang has evolved.

In 2007, when independence-seeking former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian – loathed by Beijing – had the say in Taipei, reports were filled with sarcasm and mockery.

“The ugly drama of Taiwan military’s Han Kuang 22 exercise: Taiwanese fooling themselves with foreign weapons,” read a headline by Zhongguo Guofangbao, a PLA-run newspaper. The article listed one maneuver failure after another involving American-made weaponry in Taiwan’s arsenal. “Taiwanese F-16s and F-5s tried to launch Sidewinder air-to-air missiles to intercept enemy aircraft but failed. ‘This was because of sunlight reflection effects, an officer whined’,” the paper mocked.

Then, detailed with glee, came the fate of three other US-made missile types that either failed to fire in the first place, missed their targets or fell into the sea, as well as an indigenous drone that hit the bushes. The article concluded with citing furious Taiwanese fishermen near the maneuver grounds. “Chen Shui-bian made the big show, but did he pick up the debris at the beach afterwards?” the locals were quoted as saying.

Two years into Ma’s tenure, the tone has changed somewhat.

In 2010, the state-run Global Times explained factually what happened and when, expounding somewhat on strategy and tactics, put focus on a quote by a Taiwanese military spokesman who assured that “foreign armies” were not invited to participate.

And this year, the reporting on Han Kuang turned genuinely friendly.

Huanqiu Shibao, the normally rather hawkish Chinese-language version of the Global Times, highlighted the attractive parachuting twin sisters Lin Xiang-jun and Lin Xiang-ting, and remarked that female helicopter pilot Yang Yun-xuan was gifted with the physique of a model but nonetheless chose a career in the Taiwanese armed forces because it is a “glory” to her.

According to Professor Chen, it is such an outcome that the Ma administration had in mind. This is particularly so because Taipei assesses that any other would have complicated China’s leadership transition scheduled for later this year.

“Now are very sensitive times in China. There are open power struggles in Beijing. Ma must prove to the Chinese government that he’s not a trouble-maker,” Chen said.

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