In the light of this major outside threat, one would expect Taiwan’s military to be one of the most tightly disciplined armies in the world.
Unfortunately, it has been stumbling from one controversy to the next. For decades, the military has been the setting for corruption scandals such as the death of Navy officer Yin Ching-feng linked to the Lafayette frigate scandal, and the execution of the wrong man for the murder of a little girl inside a base.
In the more recent past, spy scandals in which officers handed over secrets to Chinese intelligence officials became rife, some for ideological reasons, some just for cold, hard cash.
The death of a corporal during punishment for merely bringing a camera phone inside a base touched off widespread protests in 2013, while just a week ago, indignation centered on the torturing and killing of a dog by marines.
On July 1, a junior officer was apparently unsupervised when he accidentally launched a supersonic Hsiung Feng III missile from a Chinchiang-class corvette in Kaohsiung’s Navy harbor.
The projectile flew out over the Taiwan Strait and hit a fishing trawler near Penghu, killing its Taiwanese captain and injuring three crew members, including a Vietnamese and a Filipino citizen.
There was a time when defense ministers could brush aside such scandals with sayings like ‘where do you have people not dying?’ but those times are over.
The alleged erroneous firing of a missile not only underlines the dangers of modern warfare, but it also reveals a lack of discipline and supervision in the military that is astonishing in its reach.
A petty officer named as Kao Chia-chun succeeded in preparing a missile, arming it and firing it off due to having erroneously put it in “war mode” instead of in “maneuver mode,” according to his own declarations.
Kao had been working at the same unit for three years, so it was difficult to understand why somebody reputedly as experienced as him could have made such a terrible mistake.
It was not just Kao’s actions, but also the absence of a supervising officer during the handling of the missile which raised questions about the military’s attitude to safety precautions.
If the missile had just fallen into the sea without hitting anything or injuring anybody, it would have been bad enough, because any missile wasted in this way also means a waste of resources and of taxpayers’ money. Modern weapons do not come cheap, and Taiwan needs any piece of weaponry it can lay its hands on, given the reluctance of the international community to offend China and supply the island with the defensive weapons it truly needs.
The Hsiung Feng III missile is a product of the local defense industry, but that doesn’t mean it can just be wasted. An odd byproduct of the disaster is that foreign buyers have reportedly expressed interest in the headline-making weapon system.
In the event, the missile killed a Taiwanese ship captain and injured his son as well as a Vietnamese and a Filipino crew member. The military also emphasized the projectile never crossed the median line between Taiwan and China in the Taiwan Strait but stayed on this side of the Penghu islands.
So much the better, but the fact that a junior officer succeeded in misfiring such a powerful weapon, dubbed an aircraft carrier killer by the media, all on his own accord should ring alarm bells. It was reported as impossible under the circumstances to have the missile self-destruct before it hit the fishing vessel.
This is the most severe crisis of public confidence the military has faced, and it directly applies to its ability to defend the nation. While in the past, Taiwanese citizens have been killed by their own military before, this time, the incident might well have snowballed into a much more serious situation, triggering a grave and potentially irreversible cross-strait incident.
China should abandon its childish attitude and reopen contacts with the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Mainland Affairs Council, including using the emergency phone line which was installed to help defuse incidents precisely such as the missile misfiring.
While China acted all upset about the incident, it has been Chinese military adventurism with its aggressive stance toward other Asian nations over mostly uninhabited islands that have made Taiwan’s defense efforts necessary in the first place. Instead of muttering about Taiwan’s attitude, Beijing should make sure a similar mishap cannot happen on its side.
President Tsai Ing-wen has voiced her dedication to the armed forces and to the domestic defense industry, therefore it can be expected she will be serious about reforming and transforming the military into the effective high-morale force Taiwan needs to defend itself.