China Launches Satellite Over Taiwan Ahead of Crucial Elections
Taiwan’s defense ministry accidentally triggered emergency alerts across the island Tuesday morning by mistakenly translating Chinese government notices about a satellite launch to state an incoming Chinese missile attack, according to Taiwan state media reports . The false warning of a Chinese missile attack set off panic among some in Taiwan and highlighted concerns over potential manipulation of public opinion ahead of key elections this week.
China sent a satellite into orbit Tuesday morning that passed over Taiwan, eliciting an emergency alert to the island’s 23 million residents. Taiwan authorities later apologized for incorrectly translating the alert to say China had fired missiles toward the island .
The Long March 6A rocket carried a satellite with high-resolution remote sensing capabilities, according to Chinese state media. It blasted off from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in northern Shanxi province at 11:01 a.m. Beijing time, passed over Fujian province and sailed over the Taiwan Strait toward the Pacific .
|11:01 am Tuesday Beijing time
|Long March 6A
|High resolution remote sensing satellite
|Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, Shanxi province
|Over Fujian province, Taiwan Strait, into the Pacific
Taiwan’s defense ministry confirmed it had issued the emergency alert in error. Military officials apologized for the mistake at a news conference in Taipei, saying they had failed to properly translate information from China about the satellite launch .
Tensions High Ahead of Taiwan Elections
The incident comes as Taiwan prepares to hold key elections this week, with voting set for Saturday. It also follows rising tensions over the past three years between China and Taiwan, after Beijing intensified military activity and diplomatic efforts to assert its sovereignty claims over the self-governed democratic island.
China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has long vowed to retake control of the island democracy of 23 million people – using force if necessary. The two split in 1949 after a civil war but China maintains it will one day seek “reunification.”
In recent months, China has sent military aircraft and ships across the median line in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding waters . It has also sought new inroads with Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Just last month, Chinese balloons prompted Taiwanese defense officials to repeatedly scramble fighter jets.
|China and Taiwan split after a civil war when the Communist Party took control of the Chinese mainland and the rival Nationalists retreated to the island of Taiwan
|China steps up military and diplomatic pressure tactics toward Taiwan
|Chinese military aircraft and ships increase activity around Taiwan, crossing median line dividing Taiwan Strait
|Taiwan reports spotting several Chinese balloons over and near the island
Taiwan holds presidential and parliamentary elections every four years. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen is stepping down after two terms due to term limits. The vote this week will determine whether Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party retains control or the China-friendly opposition Nationalist Party returns to power.
Satellite Passage Sets Off Island-Wide Alert
Upon detecting the Chinese launch, Taiwan’s defense ministry issued emergency phone alerts in error stating China had fired missiles toward the island. It later corrected the message to say China had launched a satellite .
The erroneous warning set off concern among the public and temporarily roiled financial markets in Taiwan. Some analysts warned it could also lend itself to accusations by opposition figures that the ruling party was seeking to manipulate public opinion ahead of Saturday’s election through fearmongering .
The defense ministry said it sent mobile phone alerts to the islands’ 23 million residents around 1:20 p.m. local time warning of an “inbound missile” from China. Twenty minutes later, it sent another message saying the first had incorrectly translated information about the satellite launch .
Defense officials said emergency alerts are usually sent out to the entire island if missiles are detected heading toward Taiwan, giving people time to move to safety before impact. Tuesday’s false warning highlighted the degree of tension around the vote this week, as Taiwan remains on guard against potential aggression or coercion from China.
|1:20 pm Tuesday Taiwan time
|Taiwan defense ministry sends mobile alert of incoming Chinese missile attack
|Second alert corrects to say China has launched satellite
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen moved quickly to allay concerns over Tuesday’s missile misinformation, saying the government was dealing with the incident responsibly.
“The nation’s various departments are using proper methods to deal with the relevant departments on the release of inaccurate missile warnings to the public,” Tsai said at an election event in Taipei . “I have asked the national security team to strengthen the handling of related matters to avoid panic and worry among the public.”
The opposition Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with Beijing, accused the government of trying to use the alerts to manipulate public opinion ahead of the election. However, no evidence has emerged to support claims the missile misinformation was intentional .
History of Chinese Surveillance Around Taiwan
While Tuesday’s emergency alert stemmed from a translation error, Taiwan has a long history of Chinese military and espionage activity around the island, especially in times of political sensitivity.
China has previously sought to intimidate voters and impact elections on the democratic island including through military drills and cyberattacks. The incident came on the eve of a sensitive political transition, as Tsai prepares to step down after two terms due to term limits .
In addition, suspected Chinese spy balloons have flown over or near Taiwan repeatedly since December, according to Taiwan authorities. The discovery of surveillance balloons has prompted Taiwan to repeatedly scramble fighter jets and issue warnings .
|Taiwan spots one balloon near a group of islands close to China’s coast
|Second balloon detected over waters near Taiwan-controlled Kinmen islands
|Two balloons spotted over Taiwan’s air defense zone
|One balloon seen over waters east of Taiwan
The recent balloons are part of a pattern over the past three years in which China has stepped up military activity and surveillance efforts directed at the island. Chinese fighter jets and other aircraft now routinely enter Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The intensity has prompted Taiwan to repeatedly scramble its own fighter jets.
In addition, the U.S. earlier this month alleged China has a fleet of spy balloons, some of which have circulated the globe for years collecting intelligence. The issue sparked a political firestorm after the U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese balloon off the South Carolina coast on Feb 4 .
Taiwan to Bolster Election Security
In the wake of the missile miscue, Taiwan’s military said it would step up election security to guard against potential interference ahead of Saturday’s vote. The defense ministry plans to deploy more than 3,000 soldiers from around Taiwan to protect polling stations and vote counting centers .
The military will establish security cordons around those facilities from Friday through Sunday, according to defense officials. Taiwan authorities have not discovered any direct threats to disrupt the election thus far. However, they said bolstering security aims to guard against potential incidents that could undermine confidence in the electoral process .
In addition to soldiers, local police units will boost patrols near voting stations beginning Thursday. Taiwan’s Central Emergency Operations Center plans to operate at full strength over the three-day election period to monitor information and respond to any incidents. Center officials will coordinate with government authorities at all levels if any events arise that could disrupt orderly voting .
|Friday to Sunday
|Over 3,000 soldiers to guard polling and counting centers
|Thursday to Saturday
|Beefed up police patrols around voting stations
|Friday to Sunday
|Central Emergency Operations Center at full strength to monitor information and coordinate responses
Beyond military patrols and emergency coordination, Taiwan officials said they have prepared for potential cyber disruptions to the vote tallying process and critical infrastructure. The island has faced relentless cyber attacks from China including during past elections. Authorities have hardened networks and response capabilities to better defend against and recover from hacks aimed at paralyzing tallying or sowing confusion .
Impact on Taiwan Election Outcome
It remains unclear what impact, if any, this week’s missile miscue and tensions around Chinese election interference might have on the outcome of Taiwan’s leadership vote Saturday . However, some analysts said the recent incidents play into deeper voter concerns over relations with China that could favor certain candidates.
Voters will choose a new president Saturday from three leading candidates. The ruling DPP has nominated former Premier Lai Ching-te, who has adopted a fairly tough line on China relations. However, Lai trails his Nationalist Party opponent, Eric Chu, in most voter surveys over the past month. Chu has advocated stabilizing ties with China through dialogue, while dismissing the notion of unification talks .
A third candidate, Chen Po-wei of the Taiwan People’s Party, trails even further behind. Chen has argued Taiwan should drop its formal independence claims even while refusing China’s demands for political talks.
This week’s security scares could reinforce public concerns over China that play to the ruling party’s advantage. However, voters also view relations with China through an economic prism. And the DPP’s uneven record managing impacts from global inflation and the coronavirus pandemic remain the party’s biggest liability.
Most analysts forecast the election coming down to “bread-and-butter” economic issues. But a minority warn simmering worries over tensions with China could sway the outcome, especially if any major incidents flare in the final days of the campaign .
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