The planned purchase by China of S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) from Russia, which this newspaper first reported in March last year, is one of many reminders that despite warmer relations in the Taiwan Strait, China is relentless in its efforts to achieve complete military dominance over Taiwan.
As Defense News reported this week, Beijing is in talks with Moscow for the acquisition of the S-400, which has a range of 400km. If everything goes as planned, the missiles could be deployed as early as 2017. At present, China’s air defenses in its Fujian Province rely primarily on the S-300 PMU2 and the HQ9, a local variant of the S-300. Both have a range of about 200km, which puts parts of northwestern Taiwan within range, while ensuring complete coverage within China’s side of the median line in the Taiwan Strait.
With the deployment of the S-400, all of Taiwan would fall within range of Chinese missiles, which would put Taiwan’s aircraft at great risk from the moment they take off. Because negotiations are ongoing, it is not yet known how many systems the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intends to purchase and whether this would be sufficient to threaten Taiwan’s airspace. Furthermore, Taiwan cannot rule out the possibility that the S-400 will not be deployed in Fujian Province, but rather near major cities or critical military installations further inland.
Despite those unknowns, China’s efforts to achieve full dominance over Taiwan’s airspace are cause for concern. As Ian Easton, a researcher at the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, told Defense News, rumors of an S-400 acquisition may have deflated interest within the Taiwanese air force in procuring F-16C/Ds from the US, and could explain the seeming interest in acquiring F-35 Joint Strike Fighters instead, which are designed to counter such air defenses.
As Taiwan assesses its changing security environment, one option would be to break its commitments to the Missile Technology Control Regime by embarking on a full-blown program to develop and deploy cruise missiles in sufficient numbers and range as to threaten SAM sites in China’s Fujian Province and elsewhere.
Intensifying research and development of anti-radiation missiles, acquiring AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles from the US, or fielding unmanned aerial vehicles capable of operating inside Chinese airspace are possible alternatives, as is the creation of special forces units that can infiltrate China to conduct sabotage operations against SAM bases. However, in the end, such countermeasures are high-risk and can only lead to further escalation.
What is clear is that something will have to be done to remedy the growing imbalance of power in the Taiwan Strait, which in large part is the result of Russia’s continued willingness to sell highly advanced military technology to the PLA. As the weaker party in the dispute, Taiwan enjoys no such largesse from its main military benefactor, the US, which imposes serious limits on the type of defense articles that Taiwan can procure to secure its self-defense.
Another way to address the matter would be to use diplomacy to increase pressure on Moscow to cease providing the PLA with its latest defense technology, of which the S-400 is but the latest in a long shopping list that also includes highly advanced Su-35 aircraft. Russian arms transfers have played no small role in creating a PLA that is now strong enough to threaten not just Taiwan, but every other country in the region and beyond.