MARINES LAND ON TAIWAN
The emergency landing of two U.S. Marine Corps F-18 fighter jets on the island of Taiwan appears to have been a political message from the Pentagon to Beijing following a recent Chinese bomber drill near the island nation that is a key rival to Beijing’s rule.
The Pentagon said the Marine F-18s landed at a southwestern air base that Taiwan’s Defense Ministry identified as the historic Tainan air force base. Maj. Paul L. Greenberg, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the aircraft were on a routine mission, flying in support of a training exercise.
“Two F-18C Hornets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 (VMFA323), based at Kadena Airfield in Japan, made a precautionary landing this morning at an airfield in southwestern Taiwan,” Maj. Greenberg said. “There were no injuries and no damage to either aircraft. The cause of the mechanical issue which led to the precautionary landing is currently being examined. As soon as the necessary maintenance is performed, both aircraft will soon depart Taiwan.”
All U.S. military activities with Taiwan are considered sensitive as China considers the island its territory under Beijing’s “one China policy.” The policy prohibits the United States from formally recognizing the Taiwanese government.
The Tainan air base has a long history. It was used by the Japanese navy’s Tainan Air Group for its Mitsubishi Zero fighters that were part of the initial attack on the Philippines in World War II. Tainan also hosted U.S. nuclear weapons during the periods of the U.S.-Taiwanese military alliance. The base deployed nuclear-tipped Matador cruise missiles.
Additionally, the Marine jets landed on Taiwan two days after a major Chinese bomber exercise near the island.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the bomber exercises, which ended Monday, were the first time China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force had exercised in the “west Pacific.” China state television identified the aircraft as H-6K bombers — upgraded, Soviet-design nuclear-capable bombers equipped with air-launched cruise missiles.
The precise location of the bomber flights was along the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and Philippines archipelago.
This may be a simple “accident,” but one hopes the symbolism is not lost on Beijing, analysts say. Military analyst Rick Fisher said the Marine jet landings appear to be Pentagon sending a political message to China, since the aircraft could have made an emergency landing at a less-controversial location such as the Japanese airfield at Shimoji island, 120 miles east of Taiwan.
“The ‘emergency’ landing for two F/A-18 fighters at an air base in Taiwan, while perhaps unintended, does give China a significant signal of U.S. resolve, two days after China used its new H-6K nuclear cruise missile bomber in exercises intended to signal a threat to U.S. forces on Guam,” said Mr. Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Flying the nuclear-capable bombers so close to Taiwan harkens back to China’s military intimidation of the island in what came to be known as the Taiwan Strait Crisis, when China fired test missiles north and south of the island in an attempt to intimidate voters prior to the 1996 presidential election.
The Clinton administration responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region. The incident triggered China’s drive for anti-aircraft carrier weapons, including its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, and its first aircraft carrier the Liaoning.
Maj. Greenberg said Tainan was selected for the landings based on its location at the time of the mechanical problem. “The pilots followed standard procedures and safely landed the aircraft in the closest location where the weather was conducive to landing,” he said. “The welfare of the pilots, and their ability to land safely and quickly, was our primary concern.”
The Pentagon also is scaling back some of its military exchanges with China, a key feature of the Obama administration’s military policies.
Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.