by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Presidential Office/Public Domain
THE UNEXPECTED DEATH of Shen Yi-ming, Taiwan’s military chief of staff, in a helicopter crash earlier today is likely to provide fodder for electioneering in the coming days. While both the Tsai and Han campaigns have announced a three day break from campaign activities in the wake of Shen’s death, it is probable that the incident will eventually be used by the Han campaign as a means of attacking the Tsai administration. As such, the incident throws a last-minute wrench into the election with less than ten days before elections are set to take place.
In particular, Shen died after a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter that he and thirteen other military officers were in crashed shortly after taking off in Yilan. Shen and seven others were killed. This is not the first time in recent memory that a Black Hawk has crashed in Taiwan, with a 2018 crash on Orchid Island having led to the deaths of six.
The KMT has claimed variously throughout the 2020 election campaigning that the Tsai administration’s arms purchases from the US are useless and costly, providing an opportunity for the US to unload unwanted, outdated, and overly expensive military equipment onto Taiwan, but doing little to strengthen national security.
Taiwan purchased sixty UH-60M Black Hawks from the US in 2010 at a cost of 84.67 billion NTD and the helicopter that crashed is thought to be one of these. Despite the fact that these arms purchases actually occurred under the Ma administration, a KMT administration, the Han campaign is likely to claim that the fault for the crash lay with the Tsai administration for its arms purchases from America. It is not infrequent for the Han campaign to make factually incorrect claims to attack the Tsai administration, on issues ranging from the economy to Taiwan’s energy needs or foreign policy.
The Han campaign also will likely claim that the death of Shen and other military officers is another sign of the Tsai administration’s disregard for members of the military, something it may claim is reflected in the poor maintenance of military equipment. The KMT has historically banked on the loyalty of members of the military, cultivating members of the military alongside public servants, teachers, and police officers as a privileged economic class during the authoritarian times, paid generous pensions in return for political loyalty.
With the Tsai administration’s reforms of the pension system to prevent its bankruptcy, the KMT has been leveraging on outrage by members of the military and other groups over their pensions being reduced to claim that the Tsai administration does not respect them, as the defenders of national security. More conspiratorially, there will likely be those among the Han camp who claim that the Tsai administration staged the incident in order to politically benefit.
Apart from responding to this claim in order to avoid the KMT making further political inroads with the military, the Tsai administration will likely need to reassure that steps taken by it to protect national security are adequate.
In particular, one expects the Chinese government to leverage on the incident in order to claim that this represents the weakness of Taiwan’s military, that even the head of the military could suddenly die in a freak helicopter accident. Comments by Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin seem to be a case in point.
One also expects some conspiracy theories to circulate among the pan-Green camp. Because of the fact that the army is sometimes thought to slant toward the KMT, there have been some conspiracy theories circulating online that the incident could lead to the postponement of elections, or that the incident may have been deliberately staged in order to make the Tsai administration appear weak.
As civil society groups including Watchout and the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy have pointed out, it is highly likely that the incident will become a point in focus for Chinese disinformation efforts. Media organizations such as Mirror Media have been criticized for potentially contributing to panic by reporting unverified information about the crash.
The fallout from the crash has only just begun, but it may be a major issue that looms over the elections in less than two weeks.