What you need to know
Like other forces the world over, the Taiwanese military is prone to mistakes. While it should be pressured to improve its performance, repeated public humiliation isn’t the way to reach that goal.
As expected, last week’s accidental firing of an anti-ship missile by a Taiwan Navy ship during a routine exercise, resulting in the death of a fishing boat captain, has sparked a storm of derision in Taiwan’s media, which never miss an occasion to belittle the nation’s armed forces.
Friday’s Hsiung Feng III incident was unquestionably a serious blunder, one that warrants a full investigation and thorough review of the procedures that, in this case, failed to prevent the launch of a deadly missile.
That being said, the accident and the reactions to it should not turn into a media circus or a platform to humiliate the men and women who every day put their lives on the line defending this nation’s way of life. Accidents happen, and while the full results of the investigation have yet to be revealed, it is highly unlikely that conspiracy was involved or that the armed forces are, as some have suggested, completely incompetent. Other navies — including the U.S. Navy, the world’s largest and by orders of magnitude the most experienced — commit blunders on occasion, and some of those have also killed innocent civilians.
The free press that we enjoy in Taiwan is also responsible for the barrage of bad publicity and hyperbole that ensued. We should ponder the significance of this by contrasting last Friday’s incident with how a similar case would have been handled across the Taiwan Strait. Very likely we would never have heard about it; almost certainly there would have been no criticism of the People’s Liberation Army Navy due to strict controls on the media and the high risks involved in writing about matters that pertain to national security there.
Taiwan’s openness is something to be celebrated, not doubt. But such freedoms should not be abused to the extent that every opinion and conspiracy theory — yes Alex Tsai (蔡正元) that rhetorical missile is aimed at you! — becomes news and, in the process, erode morale in the armed forces by turning the military into an object of ridicule. If we based our views on the Taiwanese military solely on what has been said in the media in the past 72 hours, we would think that the entire service is staffed with buffoons. It is anything but, and from my experience travelling with and reporting on the military here, it is clear that the ranks are filled with many dedicated young men and women who intend to defend this nation.
The unfortunate accident should be treated firmly, but responsibly; it should not become an instrument to skewer the military, to spark fears of war in the Taiwan Strait, or to attack the new commander in chief, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), before she even had a chance to respond to the matter. To argue that President Tsai cannot handle national defense, as some of her critics have, or that she should apologize to Beijing for the incident when in reality the missile never threatened China and didn’t cross the median line in the Strait, is crass politicking. Foreign media also weren’t entirely blameless in this, as demonstrated by the Los Angeles Time’s headline “Taiwan’s deadly misfiring of supersonic missile jolts military rival China.” Jolts is a bit of sensationalizing, unless of course one subscribes to the silliness spewed by the party mouthpiece Global Times.
Such views can be expressed, of course, and no one is arguing for the creation of a thought police. But at the same time the media should guard against the kind of amplification that we witnessed on the weekend or in years past (remember “Apache-gate”?), regardless of who was commander in chief at the time. Sadly when news becomes entertainment, as often seems to be the case in Taiwan, serious matters become little more than raw material for a mad circus — the more preposterous the better, because that is good for ratings or KPIs.
Finally, those who argue that the Taiwanese military must learn from this mistake and improve its performance should not automatically be accused, as they have, of articulating these things because they want to sell more weapons to Taiwan. (Some people, including many foreign friends of Taiwan, are animated by noble intentions, and in this case that is the defense of an isolated gem in the Pacific. The world isn’t one bottomless pit of cynicism in which humans are nothing more than automatons obsessed with the maximization of self-interest.)
The Taiwanese armed forces exist for one purpose alone, and that is to defend a democracy that faces an existential threat from an authoritarian giant that bristles with missiles — 1,500 of which aimed directly at Taiwan, not to mention the other platforms in the PLA arsenal that would be activated should Beijing decide to invade. Yes, Taiwan’s military is imperfect, but so is every military force around the globe, even the most experienced, combat-hardened ones.
Taiwanese should expect the best from their troops, but the way to get closer to that ideal isn’t by crucifying them in the media every chance they get.
First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White