Calm Down, Taiwan Does Not Seek War with Vietnam

By parroting the remarks of legislators who don’t know what they are talking about, journalists are contributing to Taiwan’s problems
J. Michael Cole

The following is a classic example of what can go wrong when legislators who know little about military affairs and are ignorant of geopolitics decide to play Henry Kissinger and are taken seriously by journalists who fail to think critically.

In late December 2014, reports came out that Vietnam, like Taiwan one of the claimants in the South China Sea territorial dispute, was bolstering its military presence on Son Ca Island, which lies a mere 11km from Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island (Itu Aba). The initial news reports on the matter cited Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) and Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), who were using information contained in a Ministry of National Defense (MND) report to the Control Yuan.

According to the pair, Vietnam had deployed shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, presumably Russian-made SA-16 and SA-18 man-portable SAMs, and “advanced weapons” on Son Ca. The Taipei Times first reported the news in English, and The Diplomat followed suit, citing the Times article. Lin’s name is misspelled in both articles.

The missiles, the legislators stated, could be used to shoot down C-130 transport aircraft from Taiwan approaching Taiping, which features a 1,150m runway (to be extended to about 1,500m) and where a pier, capable of accommodating vessels with 3,000-ton displacement, is being built. (Taiping is also claimed by Hanoi and is known as Ba Binh to the Vietnamese.)

Taiwan’s MND later denied that Vietnam had deployed the man-portable SAMs. Furthermore, Deputy Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) pointed out that even if the missiles were present on Son Ca Island, their maximum range — less than 5.5km — meant that Taiwanese aircraft heading for Taiping, 11km away, would not be threatened.

Despite the clarifications by the Taiwanese military, the damage was done. Thanks to the headlines, Vietnam was increasingly regarded a threat — perhaps the main threat — to Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea.

But there was an even bigger story: In light of the “threat” from Vietnam, Taiwanese legislators were recommending that Taiwan respond by deploying “one or two” newly commissioned Tuo Jiang-class vessels, a 500-ton missile corvette bristling with anti-ship missiles, to Taiping “on a long-term basis.” As if this wasn’t enough, Lin and Chiang furthermore recommended that the indigenous corvettes, which already carry Hsiung Feng II and III (HF-2/3) anti-ship cruise missiles, be outfitted with as many as five navalized HF-2E land attack cruise missiles (LACM).

Given the HF-2E’s estimated range of 650km and its ability to strike land targets inside other countries’ territories, it’s not difficult to imagine that neighboring countries would regard such a move as a major escalation that risked destabilizing the region, and that doing so would cause great consternation in Washington, D.C. In fact, top officials at Taiwan’s MND are fully aware that bringing such firepower to Taiping would be sheer folly, with or without Vietnam deploying SAMs nearby. LACMs are very, very serious business. Talk of deploying such weapons to areas of high instability such as the South China Sea not only contributes to an environment of suspicion, it blatantly contradicts the Taiwanese government’s stated aim of serving as a peacemaker.

Thanks to the media, such signals nevertheless spread like brushfire, such as when, in 2012, Taiwanese newspapers reported that MND had decided to deploy AT-4 anti-armor rocket launchers to counter landing craft on Taiping, which, had they simply bothered to check with MND, they would have known was completely false.

KMT Legislator Lin Yu-fang. Photo: Legislative Yuan

This irresponsible bluster could be easily addressed, if only media stopped serving as forums where legislators like Lin Yu-fang can disseminate their outlandish — and sometimes dangerous — ideas. Lin, who sources tell me isn’t taken seriously even within his own party, has long been a proponent of militarizing Taiping Island. Furthermore, the legislator seems to have no compunction in causing the U.S. headaches with proposals that can only fuel conflict within the region (his anti-American streak could be a factor). It may be that his antics also provide some sort of needed distraction for the domestically embattled president.

Though he sits on the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee at the Legislative Yuan, Lin is no expert in geopolitics or military affairs. Unfortunately he is not alone; Chiang is in the same boat, and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has those as well (some of them have expressed support for the proposal of dispatching missile corvettes to Taiping). What is problematic and contributes to distrust is the fact that readers abroad, not unjustifiably, tend to assume that people like Lin and Chiang have special access, that they know what they are talking about and therefore speak on behalf of the government and MND.

Given Lin’s reputation, the responsible thing would be to hold off publishing a story until his “facts” have been corroborated or debunked by a knowledgeable source. The military establishment is also partly to blame, as a full week elapsed before MND debunked Lin’s claims, which was long enough to ensure that perceptions of escalation between Taiwan and Vietnam assumed the mantle of reality.

(A short side note: The tendency among Taiwanese media to skip fact checking and corroboration, and their heavy reliance on “unnamed military sources” as primary sources of information, are longstanding problems. To be fair, the pressure that managers and editors in Taiwanese media bring to bear on journalists to produce copious amounts of copy daily inevitably forces the latter to cut corners; fact checking and corroboration often are the victims. Besides the temptation to create facts, an additional offshoot of this phenomenon is “circular reporting,” whereby an article in outlet X becomes the single source for all other outlets, which often fail to identify the initial publication or author. One can easily imagine how disinformation can become “reality” when media mindlessly reproduce news articles that are based on anonymous single sourcing!)

Anyone who understands anything about regional security knows that the very idea of deploying navalized LACMs at Taiping is utterly irresponsible, as is the argument that the move is necessary to counter a threat from Vietnam, when the only real threat to Taiwan’s national security is the People’s Liberation Army. It boggles the mind that such non-experts continue to have their salary covered by taxpayers, and that the media keep taking them seriously.

Unless insane individuals take over government in Taipei, Vietnamese need not worry: Taiwan won’t be deploying LACMs near Taiping anytime soon.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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