The Ministry of National Defense should ask itself if it was the "Japan factor" that forced it to punish Rear Admiral Chang Feng-chiang for an alleged blunder during a recent military exercise. A Navy fleet under Chang's command allegedly strayed into an area near Japan's territorial waters for 11.5 hours during military exercise in the East China Sea late last month.
The defense authorities should determine whether Chang is being made the scapegoat in the incident.
The controversy arose from a belated decision to mete out punishment to Chang on grounds that he had commanded a "failed" exercise by leading three frigates in the fleet to an area 13.5 nautical miles off the Japanese island of Yonaguni, some 100 km east of Taiwan, although the fleet did not intrude into the 12 nautical-mile territory of Japan.
The Navy has good reason to punish the fleet commander if he departed from the plans and rules of the exercise for nearly half a day. Discipline is of utmost importance in a nation's combat troops. If a commander who has broken the rules is not punished, there will be no way to rein in others who break the rules.
However, the problem is that Chang was sending messages constantly to the Navy Headquarters during the 11.5 hours of "straying" but received no dissenting responses from home, much less an order to turn back.
The Navy Headquarters has said that none of Chang's messages had been approved by the supervising authorities in Taiwan and that his fleet had "strayed out of bounds" for too long.
Now, several doubts must be cleared up before people would be convinced that Chang's punishment -- a major demerit plus removal from his current post -- was appropriate.
First, if Chang's decision caused the joint Air Force-Navy drill to fail, he certainly deserved a heavy punishment. In a joint exercise, there is simply no room for the Navy to play it alone.
Second, if the grand judge of the exercise was on board the same ship as Chang, as reported by some media, it must be asked why the judge did nothing to to stop Chang. If such a case, punishment should also be extended to the judge.
On the other hand, if the judge was not on the ship but at the Tzoying base and was not aware of the fleet's whereabouts, as claimed by the Navy, one must question the point of assigning a grand judge to oversee and evaluate the whole exercise.
Third, is the question of whether some navy officers failed to carefully read all messages between the ships in the drill and the Navy Headquarters, which misled Commander Chang into believing that his superior officers were supporting his decisions.
If that is the case, the navy officers who failed to read the messages properly should receive even harsher punishment than Chang because it means they were treating the exercise as a child's game. In a war, we simply cannot afford to have such officers.
We do not agree with those lawmakers who said the MND was debasing itself by punishing Chang to please the Japanese. We would prefer to believe that he was punished not because his fleet strayed near another country's territorial waters but because he did not follow military rules.
The military must not punish an officer because of pressure from Japan. But it must not let an officer who breaks the rules go unpunished because of a nationalistic desire to protect the Tiaoyutai island group.
Now that the MND has asked military prosecutors to look into the controversial incident, it should give the people a good and convincing reason why Chang and other navy officers must be punished.
If the MND does not tell us the truth behind the incident and give a convincing reason for punishing Chang, he cannot be blamed for venting his anger, and the military -- including all the service men and women -- will be subject to contempt. (Editorial abstract -- Aug. 6, 2012)
(By S.C. Chang)