The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics -

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.

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