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Taiwan poll won't alter China's missile deployment
By David Isenberg

In Taiwan's presidential election and referendum Saturday, President Chen Shui-bian will also seek a public condemnation of China's growing missile threat and its refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. He also is proposing a new constitution with implications for sovereignty and independence. The Chinese government in Beijing believes that Chen's proposals would move Taiwan much closer to permanent separation from the mainland, and so Beijing has threatened coercive measures to prevent such an outcome.

Whatever the results of the referendum, it is virtually unthinkable that China would remove its missile threat, according to military analysts focusing on China, Taiwan and the United States.

The original referendum proposed to condemn China's growing deployment of missiles across the Taiwan Strait and ask that this threat to Taiwan's security be removed. Under pressure from Washington, however, Chen modified the wording. The new version asks voters whether China should be asked to remove the missiles, and if China refuses whether Taiwan should purchase more advanced anti-missile systems. Taiwan says - and analysts agree that the intelligence is accurate - that 496 missiles are aimed at Taiwan from bases in southern China.

Regardless of the outcome of the polls, the current tension between China and Taiwan is not likely to ease. One of the likely outcomes is that China will continue to deploy more medium-range missiles targeted, beyond the 500-some already deployed, against Taiwan. In turn Taiwan will continue to look for defense against them.

Taipei might at some point seek more explicit protection under the US Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program.

If it did seek more US protection - how would China react? Badly, some say. Ted Carpenter, vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian US domestic and foreign policy think tank, "China has always been hyper about Taiwan being under the US BMD umbrella. That upsets them a lot. If Chen wins a second term, it [China's hyper-sensitivity] might grow."

Beware overreaction to China's reaction
But Carpenter also says fears of China's reaction and oversensitivity might be an over reaction. "There is a big question as to whether Taiwan is capable of operating such a sophisticated system at this point in time," he said in an interview.

A report by the Institute for Defense Analysis, a federally funded contractor in Alexandria, Virginia, sheds light on the question of China's specific reaction in terms of possible missile deployment. In a report last year, it suggested that China's thinking has evolved over time.

China's policy on US Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), according to the report, can be divided into five periods: Strategic Infancy 1955-1982; Star Wars Era 1983-1991; Persian Gulf War and Aftermath 1992-1998; Full Court Press Against TMD (Theater Missile Defense) and NMD (National Missile Defense); 1999-2001, and After US ABM Withdrawal: 2002 and Beyond.

Each of these stages has produced its own reaction from Chinese policymakers, influenced both by domestic developments such as its own "minimum deterrent" force and foreign developments such as US and Russian research into ballistic missile defense. Further, China's thinking has been influenced by its own increasing awareness that it was and is a great power on the world stage.

Yet since China was nearly silent when the US unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002, many observers have said that its prior opposition to US withdrawal was primarily rhetorical.

China would try to neutralize US missile advantage
That does not mean, however, that China would not take actions to neutralize possible future US advantage - if Washington decides to aid Taiwan in acquiring advanced missile defense technology.

The report by the Institute for Defense Analysis states, "Based on six decades of Chinese thinking about talking about strategic stability, it is easy to predict that China's nuclear force posture will evolve in order to maintain a viable second-strike capability. The evolution will be both qualitative and quantitative. To be sure, qualitative and quantitative improvements to China's forces have long been under way and would likely occur in the absence of a US BMD program. But this historical review suggests that those improvements will be tailored to meet the new requirements of survivable second-strike posed by US BMD."

Brad Roberts, the report author, said in a telephone interview with Asia Times Online: "The period of the 1980s remains important, as it allowed Chinese experts to debate central issues and that debate is raging today. There is deep concern with space militarization and they remain seized with [concerned with, closely following] the prospect of neutralizing American advantage in this area."

Yet various factors complicate gauging how China will respond to US ballistic missile defense developments. These include China's own efforts to develop BMD, the willingness of the Chinese leadership to make investments in its nuclear forces in order to keep up with US BMD deployments, and the impact of the nuclear moratorium on China's ability to field new nuclear warheads.

The report notes that a "middle way" has been promoted by some Chinese experts that balances efforts to increase the survivability of China's ICBM force with the deployment of penetration aids - more powerful weapons.

Bush over-promises that US will aid Taiwan
According to John Pike, director of, a military analysis firm, outside Washington DC, "It's unclear what the Chinese will do about Taiwan. The state of relations is very much in flux. The [US President George W] Bush administration has over-promised both China and Taiwan that when push comes to shove they'll get Taiwan out of a jam."

But Pike says that in the short term China is likely to remain relatively quiet. "China won't say anything to adversely influence the US election."

Others disagree. Roberts, author of the China missile report of the Institute for Defense Analysis, said, "I've grown rather skeptical that the PRC took the lesson from its prior electoral interference in Taiwanese politics when it brandished a big stick." This was an apparent reference to China's firing missiles over and around Taiwan in an effort to intimidate voters on the eve of the island's 1996 election.

The report also notes that regardless of how China responds to US ballistic missile defense developments, Beijing is unlikely to abandon political efforts to shape US actions and the international environment.

One possibility would be to reverse its policy of the past two decades of increased participation in international arms control efforts and abandon forms of restraint accepted in recent years. For example, it might argue that since the US has found it convenient to withdraw from its obligations to the ABM Treaty, China also has the right to do the same. Another possibility is that China would put increased emphasis on multilateral arms control regimes while downplaying bilateral cooperation with the US.

"The Chinese are going to keep their powder dry," Pike said. "There is not much to talk about a construction one calls "arms control".

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Mar 19, 2004

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