|TAIPEI – When Taiwan this month holds its annual ”Han Kuang” maneuvers involving the island’s army, air force and navy with close to 200,000 military personnel and most, if not all, weapons systems taking part, the massive show will differ decisively from previous years.The Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) government under President Ma Ying-jeou replaced life-fire with the sound of gunfire coming from speakers ostensibly to cut carbon emissions. Participants and observers this time will get the real thing, as about 10,000 rounds of ammunition will be used in the drill. Because tensions with former arch-enemy China are at their
lowest ever, deterrence is hardly the motive for the return to the all-out cannonade.
”For the 29th Han Kuang exercise, the Ministry of National Defense ordered life-fire drills to be held at Penghu’s Wude district mainly to satisfy the ardent desire of lawmakers, the media and the public,” Major General Tseng Fu-shing told Asia Times Online through the Military Information Division. ”Han Kuang aims to verify appropriate operational planning and feasibility of our Guan battle plan [which is for the defense of Taiwan proper].”
Han Kuang has been held since the mid-1980s, a time when 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 finding out for how many days Taiwanese forces could repel the PLA until Washington orders its military to interfere, while at the same time sorting out ways to prolong that period.
Because it has somehow always leaked that observers sent by the US Pacific Command participated, Han Kuang created ambiguity as to whether, and if so at what stage, US forces would step in, making the Chinese not want to take the risk in the first place.
After Ma took office in 2008, ties with China improved spectacularly. Han Kuang became gradually tamer, and in 2012 not a shot was fired. Hints of US involvement have also become faint. And whereas Ma’s predecessors had made big hoopla about inaugurating and observing the massive drills, Ma in 2012 reportedly showed up for a mere six minutes on Han Kuang’s very last day. He is on record as having said: ”I have other appointments to keep.”
Unsurprisingly, his China-wary domestic opponents decry that the episode was one out of many signs that the Ma government is letting the military wither. He does so because he wants to placate Beijing and ”sell out Taiwan”, they say, and indeed, five years into his presidency, the outlook has become precarious for the island’s once-formidable armed forces.
Taiwan’s de facto protector Washington is increasingly stingy with the release of weapons, the ongoing transition to an all-volunteer military might well fail due to a record low defense budget and a record low birthrate, and an never-ending stream of treason cases is undermining the troops’ moral, as well as friendly countries’ trust.
Hence, the resumption of live-fire exercises is apparently meant to send a message to key audiences.
”Looking half-hearted toward the national defense – the number one job for any government – subjects the Ma administration to attacks from the opposition at home,” says James R Holmes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College. ”And it also reduces the United States’ eagerness to come to the island’s relief in wartime.”
But according to Holmes, who in recent weeks has made headlines with his warnings that ”apathy kills” and that ”Taiwan must show a vigorous hand in its defense rather than passively awaiting rescue [by US forces]”, the forthcoming reintroduction of live-fire at Han Kuang is much less meant as a signal to China.
”It will take more than live-fire exercises to impress mainland observers; Beijing appears to have formed its opinion of the Taiwan military already, and found the island’s defenders wanting,” Holmes says, while nonetheless acknowledging that ”if this marks the start of a campaign to step up Taiwan’s defenses, then it’s a good thing.”
Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said that while the suspension of live-firing was a signal directed at China, the resumption is not.
”The suspension from 2008-12 was probably because of a desire on the part of the Ma administration to stress its good will in easing cross-strait tension that was getting high during the Chen Shui-bian years,” Tsang said, referring to Ma’s predecessor, whose independence stance dared Beijing to take action.
”Now that cross-strait relations are supposed to be on an even keel again, it is only reasonable that the Ma administration should reinstate live-fire exercises; it is just what modern militaries need to do to maintain high standards of training and readiness, which is what all professional militaries in major countries do regularly.”
Yen Tiehlin, a retired Taiwanese navy captain and now researcher with the Center for Security Studies (MCSS) in Taipei, emphasizes that although changes were made to Han Kuang with the beginning of Ma’s presidency, all maneuver parts were still held on separate occasions.
”The reason for that was that we had found through years of Han Kuang experience that we need more time to absorb the lessons learned and to improve our capabilities,” he said.
According to Yeh, South Korean-US joint exercises are also divided into two parts – ”Key Resolve”, as a command-post exercise (CPX), and ”Foal Eagle”, as a field training exercise (FTX), and similarly with the joint Japan-US ”Keen Edge” and ”Keen Sword” exercises.
”And as we do hold live-fire exercises [elsewhere] every year, we do not necessarily rely on Han Kuang for our live-fire training,” Yen said.
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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