by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Rueichung/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 4.0
REPORTS INDICATE that a Taiwanese soldier stationed in Kinmen who disappeared from his post is in China. On Saturday, Next Apple reported that the soldier had been found in China and had been rescued by the Chinese Coast Guard after swimming there, while the Ministry of National Defense’s official stance was that the soldier’s location was unclear.
By Sunday, Kinmen KMT legislator Chen Yu-jen stated that the soldier was safe in Xiamen, China, though Chen did not provide further details and stated she was unsure why he had disappeared. By Monday, the Mainland Affairs Council stated that it was aware that the soldier was in China, though it stated it was too early to assume he deserted. Chiu Tai-san, the Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, stated that Chinese authorities had informed Taiwan of his whereabouts and were in the process of returning him to Taiwan.
It is unclear why the soldier, a Private First Class surnamed Chen stationed on Erdan Island, swam to China, then. Some reports suggest that he was under a high amount of stress. Chen was not a draftee but a professional soldier.
It is possible that the Chinese government may frame the incident as a desertion later on, along the lines of Chen defecting to China–a la Cold War defections that occurred along such lines, or defections from North Korea. In this sense, the Chinese government could potentially use the incident for propaganda purposes, to suggest low morale on the part of the Taiwanese military. The Taiwanese government will likely try to keep a low profile until Chen returns to Taiwan, for fear that the event becomes politicized by “wolf warrior” diplomats or others in a way that endangers him.
Certainly, the incident may contribute to image and morale issues facing the Taiwanese military. Chinese grey-zone tactics have sought to erode the perceived effectiveness of the military. Footage of Taiwanese troops stationed in Kinmen throwing rocks at Chinese drones last summer was widely circulated online, for example, so as to make light of the effectiveness of Taiwanese troops. This eventually led the Taiwanese government to more proactively shoot down drones, when previously there was a greater focus on driving drones off, but avoiding provocations. The Taiwanese military at the time also specified that the drones it was harassed by were civilian, rather than military drones.
There has also been greater focus on the possibility that in lieu of a full-scale invasion, China would first attack one of Taiwan’s outlying islands. Issues with Internet connection in Matsu after the two submarine cables linking Matsu to Taiwan were cut go to show that China could perhaps first seek to disrupt Internet connection between outlying islands and the rest of Taiwan, so as to prevent communications ahead of potential military action.
Either way, it would be much easier for China to take outlying islands of Taiwan–as with the rest of Taiwan–if low morale or views that resistance was futile led to minimal defense. As such, it is not impossible that China uses Chen’s disappearance for psychological warfare purposes.
In particular, there have been increased questions raised about the dignity of the armed forces and the loyalty of the military following a report by the Nikkei that alleged 90% of retired military officials sold secrets to China. The report prompted expletives from Veterans Affairs Minister Feng Shih-kuan in the legislature and urine to be thrown at the offices of the Nikkei in Taiwan, which later apologized over the matter.
In this sense, there is pressure on the military to prove its loyalty–incidents such as a Taiwanese soldier swimming to China will not help in that regard. Yet, to this extent, scrutiny on members of the military for potentially defecting to China may further contribute to low morale.
The pan-Blue camp has historically enjoyed greater support from members of the military. Namely, members of the military were among the classes privileged by the KMT in authoritarian times, along with police, teachers, and public servants. This, along with ROC nationalism, are among the reasons that questions have been raised about the potential loyalty of some members of the military in wartime–as well as that, as with Taiwanese politics more broadly, the military historically privileged waishengren in its senior leadership.
Consequently, it is also possible that the KMT seeks to amplify perceived slights to the prestige of the military by the Tsai administration through this incident. This would be in the hopes of appealing to a group that has traditionally supported the KMT.
Pension reforms undertaken by the Tsai administration were already framed this way in the past, seeing as while generous pensions were a reward for political loyalty during KMT authoritarian times, this risked bankrupting Taiwan’s pension system as a whole. These pension reforms were a contributing factor to the rise of deep-blue groups such as the “800 Heroes,” which have continued to play a role in the make-up of the pan-Blue camp as a whole since then.