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.