The military balance across the Taiwan Strait has entered a new phase with China’s launch of its Ukraine-bought aircraft carrier, the Varyag, and Taiwan’s deployment of its home-made Hsiung Feng III (HF-3) anti-ship missile.
The two weapons are mostly symbolic, in that China does not have the support ships and training to launch an aircraft carrier battle group, while the HF-3 does not appear to pack enough punch to take out such a big ship. However, that does not stop both sides from hyping up their new toys for domestic political purposes and to send a militaristic diplomatic message across the Taiwan Strait.
China’s main purposes for launching the former Soviet Union aircraft carrier are domestic — to train the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy to eventually use China’s own home-built aircraft carriers, which are expected to be launched in about 2020, and to satisfy domestic nationalist demands. The navy’s expectations for its force projection operations most likely involve protecting Chinese shipping in the Indian Ocean. However, it also has a symbolic value in the Taiwan Strait.
Despite the PLA Navy’s lack of training in operating aircraft carriers and its inability to supply a support group as of yet, which means the soon-to-be-renamed Varyag would be a sitting duck in any cross-strait military conflict, it is still the most powerful naval weapon China has ever deployed. Soviet planners envisioned the Varyag carrying a battery of anti-ship missiles, which, if China retrofitted the ship correctly, would allow it to deploy SS-N-22 sunburn anti-ship missiles at sea, creating a strong deterrent to the US in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.
The PLA Navy has not announced the new name of the aircraft carrier, but it can be expected to send a message to the region about China’s military intentions.
A Jane’s Defence Weekly report said that the ship may be renamed the Shi Lang, after a Qing Dynasty admiral who defeated descendants of Koxinga (鄭成功) to conquer Taiwan in the 17th century.
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese navy is displaying the HF-3, a ramjet-powered missile that can be launched from land or sea, at the Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition. The navy says the missile was first deployed in 2007, while they sent a not-so-subtle hint that it could be used to target China’s new ship — behind the missile displayed at the exhibition is a giant computer-generated image showing an aircraft carrier resembling the Varyag that had taken a direct hit and the Chinese characters for “carrier killer.”
However, with a payload of 120kg, the missile is much smaller than China’s Russia-acquired carrier killers and would be unlikely to sink the Varyag. On top of that, the Taiwanese military’s ability to hit targets in missile tests recently has left most observers underwhelmed, with numerous misfires, faulty guidance systems and poor targeting.
So where do these developments leave the military balance in the Taiwan Strait?
For now, it will not make much difference. China knows the Varyag would be a sitting duck in any major conflict and the Taiwanese navy knows its HF-3 does not pack enough punch to take out most of China’s vessels.
Cross-strait military games will go on as before, but with a new twist. Deep in everybody’s minds will be the knowledge that China’s offensive power is growing, while Taiwan is racing to keep up. Ten years from now, this will make a much bigger difference than it does today.