There is mounting speculation that Taipei and Beijing may have had backroom talks in the past six months over a partial withdrawal of the estimated 1,600 ballistic missiles China targets at Taiwan. However, such a move would provide fewer security deliverables to Taiwan than meets the eye.
The first public mention of a possible missile withdrawal by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Second Artillery was made by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) in New York City in September last year, comments that soon gave rise to rumors that Taiwanese and Chinese officials, possibly aided by a few Americans, had launched talks on the matter.
In the seven months since, Washington has sent occasional signals that it encouraged such a move and the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has made repeated, if half-hearted, calls on Beijing to “detarget” or “withdraw” ballistic missiles.
With presidential elections in Taiwan scheduled for March next year and Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) facing a tough challenge from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), analysts have posited that Beijing, which regards the KMT as a more amenable partner, could partly accede to Ma’s request as a mark of “goodwill” if such a move was expected to help the KMT retain power.
Recent developments in China’s ballistic missile forces could indicate preparations for such a grand missile bargain, or at least make it more feasible. Last month, National Security Bureau Director Tsai Der-sheng (蔡得勝) told the legislature that China had completed testing and was in the process of deploying a new type of missile known as the Dong Feng-16 (DF-16), which had an extended range of between 1,000km and 1,200km.
At present, the great bulk of the ballistic missiles targeted at Taiwan consist of short-range DF-11s and DF-15s.
Although Tsai’s claims could not be verified by US spy satellites — a fact that has led some experts to doubt the credibility of his information — there is little doubt that longer-range and more advanced missiles have been under development in China for some years. Some experts have posited that Tsai’s DF-16 could in fact be a medium-range missile, known as the CSS-X-11, which was reportedly used in an anti-missile test at the Shuangchengzi Space and Missile Center in Gansu Province last year (if that missile were now deployed, it would be known as the CSS-11, as the “X” indicates the device is still under development).
Whether or not there is one longer-range missile program or two running in parallel (for example, the US in the 1950s had two intermediate range ballistic missile programs, the air force’s “Thor” and the army’s “Jupiter”) is of marginal importance. What matters is that, through upgraded variants or new missiles altogether, China is extending the range of its ballistic missiles.
Defense specialists have already pointed to modernization efforts at the Second Artillery’s Leping short-range ballistic missile Brigade in Jiangxi Province, where older missiles are being replaced by newer and longer-range versions, like the DF-15C.
Aside from allowing for deployments further inland at greater distance from retaliatory attack, the addition of longer-range missiles means that they have to reach a higher altitude before embarking on their descent toward their target, leading to faster re-entry, which in turn makes it more difficult for interceptors, such as Taiwan’s PAC-3s, to destroy them.
What is also known is that the circular error probable, or precision, of Chinese missiles has greatly improved over the years and that several are now equipped with multiple submunitions, thus extending the area of damage caused by a single missile hitting its target (such submunitions, or bomblets, could wreak havoc on an airfield, for example).
The implication of those developments is that even if Beijing were to dismantle or detarget a number of its missiles — most likely older types with a shorter range — as part of a bargain with Taiwan, the addition of longer-range and increasingly precise missiles with several submunitions would negate any advantage such a move could confer upon Taiwan.
As such, while a grand missile bargain would be construed as a sign of “goodwill,” a closer look would reveal it as little more than illusion, as Beijing’s offensive capabilities would remain unchanged and still able to overwhelm Taiwan’s air-defense systems.
Potential benefits for Ma’s re-election bid, however, could be less negligible, as he would have “proof” that Beijing had responded positively to his calls for the removal of missiles. Conversely, his campaign could argue that a return to power by the DPP would risk war.
A missile bargain is far from a done deal, however, as much uncertainty remains over next year’s power transition and signs that the military has increasing sway over policy decisions. With each military region vying for a piece of a growing, yet still finite, budget, such fiefdoms as the Second Artillery are unlikely to welcome decisions that would cut budgets, as a substantial missile withdrawal would likely cause. Peace in the Taiwan Strait, despite the allegedly universal ardor for unification with Taiwan, would actually be bad news for some — especially for budgets. The irony is that some military chiefs could prefer a DPP return to power as this would ensure continued growth in military budgets for research and deployment.
Even if Beijing were willing to offer Taiwan a missile bargain as part of so-called confidence-building efforts, hands could be tied as a result of a power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA.
Whether a missile offer can be made in time to affect the outcome of the presidential election in Taiwan will be contingent on which faction in Beijing prevails and whether Xi Jinping (習近平) — the expected successor to Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as president and whose rise in party ranks saw him supervise the military in Fujian Province for 14 years — can control the armed forces.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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