U.S. Forces on Taiwan for Typhoon Relief Mission
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI - U.S. military forces are bringing aid and logistical support to typhoon-battered Taiwan, their largest military operation on the island since the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Command closed in 1979. The effort began despite raised eyebrows in Washington and Beijing and continues amid political aftershocks in Taipei.
The catastrophe, which has drawn comparisons in local media to 2005's Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, has shaken confidence in the administration of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou. During an Aug. 18 news conference, Ma appeared confused and exhausted, offering repeated apologies for his handling of relief efforts. He also announced the Taiwan military would reorient itself from defending the island from China to preparing for natural disasters.
"Now our enemy is not necessarily people across the Taiwan Strait, but nature," Ma said.
During the news conference, Defense Minister Chen Chao-min contradicted Ma, saying the military's primary goal would continue to be the defense of Taiwan from mainland China. The next day, Chen offered his resignation.
The Pentagon responded to Taiwan's request for international assistance after Typhoon Morakot dumped 80 inches of rain on the island Aug. 8, killing about 500 and leaving thousands homeless.
The amphibious transport dock Denver dispatched four helicopters Aug. 17, and two Marine C-130s based on Okinawa flew on Aug. 16 and 17 to Tainan Air Force Base in southwestern Taiwan, delivering four pallets of plastic sheeting and a half-ton of water-purifying chlorine tablets, said 2nd Lt. Scott Sasser, a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman based in Okinawa.
But the mission had to overcome political objections from China and opposition in the U.S. government.
"There was a lot of hand-wringing in the State Department over it," said a former U.S. intelligence official.
China objects to any U.S. military assistance to Taiwan, even humanitarian, on the grounds that the island is part of mainland China.
A Washington-based U.S. State Department official said the mission sent the message that the U.S. is not inhibited by politics or sovereignty issues when dealing with humanitarian disasters.
"In this situation, China has not lost its bark, but how can it criticize when it is offering to send similar assistance to Taiwan and after Taiwan and the U.S. assisted in recovery from last year's Chengdu earthquake?" he asked.
"We are conducting these operations to assist the people of Taiwan in recovering from this disaster. These operations do not change our policies toward Taiwan or the People's Republic of China."
CHINA SUPPORT REJECTED
Taipei rejected Beijing's offer of military helicopters and military support. Although cross-strait relations are improving, China still has more than 1,000 missiles aimed at the island.
Despite local media reports that this is the first time U.S. military forces have entered Taiwan since 1979, the U.S. government official noted that every year sees at least one visit by a military aircraft, usually to ferry in congressional visitors.
"Also, we have in the past quietly sent in U.S. military aircraft to support disaster relief operations in Taiwan," he said, including Typhoon Aere in 2004 and the 9-21 earthquake in 2009.
But this does appear to be the first time U.S. military helicopters and a U.S. naval vessel have conducted military operations in Taiwan since the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
On Aug. 17, the Denver sent two MH-53E Sea Dragon heavy-lift helicopters and two MH-60S Knight Hawk medium-lift helicopters to Tainan Air Force Base. The Sea Dragons helped lift heavy machinery into mountain regions cut off by mudslides and flooding.
Taiwan's own helicopters are aging. On Aug. 11, a UH-1H crash that killed three led to the temporary grounding of the UH-1s. The helicopter belonged to the civilian National Airborne Service Corps (NASC), which operates a mix of helicopters, including the Boeing Vertol 234MLR, a civilian version of the CH-47; Eurocopter AS 365, Bell UH-1H and Sikorsky S-76B.
In a bizarre twist, Ma announced plans during the news conference to reduce the army's order for 60 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawks to 45 and divert the savings to the NASC for more equipment.
Defense sources in Taiwan were shocked by the decision, saying the Black Hawks are needed to replace around 60 Army UH-1H helicopters in service since the 1970s.
"Yes, he's lost his mind," said a local defense industry source, who suggested it would make more sense to reduce the 30 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters on order, rather than transport helicopters.
Others suggested reducing the number of Patriot PAC-3 air defense missiles on order.