Rescuers inspecting the crash site of a UH-60M military helicopter, near the mountains of Yilan county, Taiwan, 02 January 2020. EPA/Yilan County Fire Bureau

Opinion – The politics of helicopter accident in Taiwan

After a crash of a military helicopter in Taiwan’s Yilan county on January 2, the politics of the accident of the US-made Black Hawk UH-60M are worthy of attention.
First and foremost, the Chief of General Staff, air force General Shen Yi-ming, died in the accident together with seven other colleagues, while five of the thirteen people on board survived.
Critics of the government, like James Soong of the People’s First Party, immediately pointed out the “careless” way in which it was arranged that all the main military officers were on the same helicopter. The Taiwan Defence Ministry responded to such criticism by saying that a risk assessment had been made, that high-level officers of the same rank were not supposed to travel on the same plane, and that the inspection visit made by the Chief of General Staff was proper.
The black box of the helicopter was found, and the preliminary findings appeared to rule out the possibility of bad weather conditions and mechanical problems that might bring about the accident. According to Taiwan’s news report, personal factors might be analysed further for the accident. The Defence Ministry remarked that more information would be available after a thorough investigation into the possible causes of the accident.
If personal factors were involved, the question was whether the training was adequate for the UH-60M pilot, who was expected to manage the helicopter skilfully even in bad weather conditions. Some military analysts said that UH-60M was equipped with sophisticated and dynamic, radar and control systems, and that the systems should be able to help the pilot skilfully avoid accidents. However, they pointed to the possibility that the helicopter might accidentally hit the trees on the mountainous region.
During the past few years, several Taiwan military accidents took place from time to time, including the misfiring of a Hsiung Feng III missile from a navy vessel in Kaohsiung in July 2016 that killed a captain and injured three people on a fishing boat near Penghu; and the sudden falling of a CM11 tank off a bridge into a river that killed three soldiers in August 2016. All these accidents raised the questions of whether some military weapons were regularly well-maintained and whether some military personnel were rigorously trained.
Military accidents occasionally take place during Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang exercise. As early as 2007, a fighter jet F-5F crashed into a storeroom in a military base, killing two Taiwanese pilots and two visiting Singaporean soldiers on the ground. In May 2018, a paratrooper commander was injured when he could not open his parachute and reserve parachute after he had jumped out from a C-130H transport plane. In June 2018, a major was killed in a crash of a F-16 fighter jet on a mountain near Taipei. In May 2019, fifteen soldiers were injured in an accident during which a military truck crashed into a vacant sentry post in Hsinchu county.
Although military accidents are unavoidable in any state, Taiwan’s most recent helicopter accident has become highly politicized because of the upcoming presidential and legislative elections in January 2020. Critics of the government remarked that the military should maintain its weaponry well, ensure the good quality training of military staff, and regularly inspect the existing Black Hawk helicopters.
After the accident on January 2, Taiwan grounded its 52 UH-60M helicopters from the air force and the army; inspecting the radar and control systems and fuselage structure. In February 2016, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed near Orchid Island and killed six people. The Taiwan government in 2010 had purchased 60 Black Hawk helicopters from the US at a cost of almost NT$85 billion. Fifty-two of them have already been delivered, with the rest to be delivered in August 2020.
After the accident on January 2, President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) quickly visited the military officer victims and soldiers. The DPP, and the opposing Kuomintang (KMT), called off their election campaign for three days temporarily to mourn the victims of the accident. The opposition, including the KMT and the People’s First Party (PFP), appealed to the military soldiers and their families to vote against the ruling DPP.
The three-day termination of the election campaign appeared to benefit the DPP slightly more than the opposition. The opposition KMT and PFP appeared to fail to galvanize public concerns about the anti-infiltration bill, which was initiated by the DPP and passed by the Legislative Assembly. The bill’s content and scope appear to be far more socially and politically controversial than the helicopter accident.
A neglected issue in the accident was the visit of the Chief of General Staff, Shen Yi-ming, to a radar station at Dong’ao Ling in Yilan county. The radar station is located at the Dong’ao Ling mountain top, staffed by 100 members of the air force with three regular rotations, and it remains a restricted military site. The radar station aims at monitoring the airspace near the Diaoyu (Fishing) Island. Usually, Shen visited all the radar stations on various mountains in Taiwan before the Chinese New Year, not only as a kind of courtesy visit but also as an encouragement to boost the morale of the officers and soldiers stationed there. All these radars are strategically significant and could be the targets of the People’s Liberation Army, if any military conflict between Taiwan and mainland China might break out.
Due to the strategic location of the Dong’ao Ling station, Shen’s visit might have an objective of closely monitoring any mainland Chinese naval and air force movement around the Diaoyu Island regions, especially shortly before the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan. According to former soldiers who were stationed in the Dong’ao radar, the batch of soldiers and officers guarding the station must retain two-thirds of their manpower there all the time, with one-third of them having leave. On average, a solider has ten days of leave but he or she has to work for twenty days per month there.
The accident on January 2 did question Taiwan’s military capability. Some news reports pointed to the failure of the Taiwan military to find out twice, the exact location of the helicopter accident.
Coincidentally, the helicopter accident occurred just one day after the remarks made by Liu Jieyi, the director of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, who appealed to Taiwan for peaceful development of cross-strait relations. Liu said that the mainland adhered to the principles of “peaceful reunification” and “one country, two systems” in dealing with Taiwan. However, given the Hong Kong protests in 2019, many Taiwan people, especially the DPP, oppose the “one country, two systems.” The People’s Republic of China has not yet renounced the use of force in coping with the question of Taiwan’s future, especially in view of the existence and proliferation of “separatist” forces on the island republic. Interestingly, while Liu Jieyi stressed on January 1 the importance of “peaceful development” between Beijing and Taipei, and avoided mentioning any military option, the helicopter accident in Taiwan on January 2 coincidentally exposed the potential weaknesses of Taiwan’s military. Perhaps both sides would benefit tremendously from a peaceful solution, which is ironically not forthcoming in the short run.

MNA Political commentator