Thu, Aug 12, 2004 - Page 4 News List

China's rapid missile build-up no empty threat

CROSS-STRAIT CONFLICT China is accelerating its coastal deployment of missiles that are now accurate and powerful enough to inflict severe damage on Taiwan

REUTERS , Taipei

A rapid expansion in China's arsenal of missiles deployed against Taiwan suggests the weapons are no longer just a psychological deterrent for Taiwanese wanting independence but are actual preparations for war.

Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) estimated this week that by 2005 China would have pointed 800 missiles at the island, a significant increase from the present 500. Most military experts have forecast an increase to about 600 next year.

While Western military experts may disagree with Lu's figure, they say there is no doubt China is accelerating its arms build-up, convinced that President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) intends formally to declare statehood in a new constitution by 2008.

"The fact that Beijing is moving towards a continued build-up, whatever the number, is a troubling development," said defense analyst Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute in New York.

Unacceptable Damage

"I think the ultimate strategy that Beijing is pursuing is to have a military capability sufficient to inflict unacceptable damage on US forces in and around the Taiwan Strait should the US intervene."

Historically, analysts had viewed China's missile deployment as a psychological threat to Taiwan to ensure its leaders did not seek a permanent separation from the mainland with a formal declaration of independence.

As China lacked amphibious vessels to ship battalions of its 2.5-million-strong army across the Taiwan Strait, a missile shower was deemed unlikely to be followed by an invasion force.

But China's missiles have become too accurate and destructive to be dismissed as empty threats, and some analysts view the Taiwan Strait as the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia.

"To actually be able to use them in a militarily relevant way, that's a new trendline and frankly that is more disturbing," said James Mulvenon, a China military expert at Rand Corp.'s Center for Asia Pacific Policy.

"The psychological make-up of the population in Taiwan is fairly fragile and I think Beijing has a very good understanding of the kind of political dynamics it would unleash with even the smallest of combat."

Beijing aims to acquire pre-emptive strike capability by bombing Taiwan's command center and 12 airbases, thus grounding the island's more advanced air fleet, and to hit strategic targets such as highways, power plants and oil refineries.

With 800 missiles, China can launch five waves of attacks and intensively bomb Taiwan for 10 hours, the Ministry of National Defense said in a report in July.

"The military cannot meet such an attack with our current capabilities," it said. The report was aimed at winning support for a proposal to buy advanced US anti-missile defense systems.

Andrew Yang, a military expert at a private think tank in Taipei, estimated China's short-range ballistic missiles to have an accuracy to about 30-50 meters and said it would take 10 years for Taiwan to operate an anti-missile system.

"There is a time gap between the Chinese missile threat and the availability of our missile defense," said Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

"It'll force Taiwan to come to terms using missile attack or air force attack," he said. "Then we'll be finished."

Other analysts are less sure Taiwan would succumb so easily, saying it could sit out the missiles and repair its airbases fairly quickly.

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