Misfiring of missile by Taiwan a reminder to keep lines of communication open
Taipei and Beijing have their differences, but incidents of this nature, if not properly addressed, can lead to military escalation
If there is one part of the world that could do without a military incident it is the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. That is especially the case now. The area is fraught with territorial disputes and patrolled by warships and military aircraft. Tension is rising ahead of a ruling by an international tribunal on the Philippines’ arbitration case against Chinese maritime claims in the area. Relations between the mainland and Taiwan are at their lowest ebb in years.
It is into this unsettled situation that an anti-ship missile was fired from a Taiwanese patrol boat docked at a Kaohsiung naval base on Friday morning, hitting a local fishing boat 40 nautical miles away and killing its captain. Circumstances surrounding the incident revealed so far give rise to concerns on both sides of the strait, and throughout the region, that demand a fuller accounting and that every possible step is taken to ensure it does not happen again.
The Taiwanese authorities said an unsupervised petty officer who failed to follow standard operating procedure during a drill inspection was responsible for the launch. He told them he had accidentally switched the missile’s mode from simulation to attack. This prompted suspicious questions from military experts and local media, given that a petty officer is supposed to have single-handedly fired a missile that requires three procedures for launch clearance. Taiwan’s defence ministry insists the misfiring of a missile that can reach the mainland was an isolated incident.
More needs to be done to lay concerns to rest. The peculiar nature of the incident has aroused too much speculation and too many questions. The director of the mainland State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office is right to demand a “responsible” explanation of a “serious” incident. It is good therefore that newly sworn-in Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen demanded the most thorough investigation into an incident that “should never have happened”. The probe should also be transparent. Anything less would provide fertile ground for lingering suspicion and conspiracy theories.
The biggest worry about such incidents is that they can get out of control and lead to armed conflict. The reason most commonly advanced for maintaining dialogue between adversaries is to prevent such escalation. Now that Beijing has cut a communications channel with Taipei after Tsai failed to mention the “1992 consensus” on one China in her inaugural address, the missile incident is a reminder of how important it is that agreement is reached on maintaining semi-official contacts.