China keeps new and old rivals in
range By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Recent footage on Chinese state
TV is fueling speculation that new medium-range
missiles have been deployed by the People's
Liberation Army (PLA).
existence of the missile hasn't yet been
confirmed, because of its reputed range,
suspicions are being raised that the "Dongfeng-16"
is aimed at China's rival claimants in the South
China Sea. It's already known that China's
conventional missile force has plenty of warheads
capable of devastating traditional target Taiwan.
The story of how the "DF-16" came to the
world's attention seems straight out of a PLA
textbook on political warfare.
weeks when the rivalry between China and Vietnam
and the Philippines over the potentially
energy-rich South China Sea
heights, China's CCTV channel 13 showed a clip
ostensibly routinely applauding the nation's armed
Somewhere in an undisclosed urban
location in China, a mobile missile launcher was
shown driving around and then parking in a
The footage had been
noted in faraway Russia by military enthusiasts,
and in early April, was posted on a website
affiliated with a military-industrial complex. It
didn't take long for bloggers to reach a
conclusion on the device. Because the launch
vehicle's chassis was smaller than what's needed
to launch a DF-21 - China's known medium-range
ballistic missile - but bigger than those used for
the DF-11 and DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles
aimed at Taiwan, it must be a DF-16.
existence of that missile type was first alleged
by Taiwan's National Security Bureau about a year
ago. Then, Western analysts questioned the
credibility of the reports.
Times this week picked up on the story, quoting an
expert on the Chinese missile force who speculated
that the DF-16 could be deployed in Shaoguan,
Guangdong province. That location, added to the
missile's suspected range, could make it a "swing
unit", said Mark Stokes of the Project 2049
Institute. This would give it the ability to
target not just Taiwan, but "also serve as a
deterrent in the South China Sea and Vietnam, more
After Taiwan's principle
intelligence agency first made mention of the
DF-16 in 2011, military scholars said a deployment
against Taiwan wouldn't be implausible, either.
Its longer range means the missile climbs higher
and falls longer, which with the help of gravity
accelerates the speed with which it homes in on
its target, improving its chances of
outmaneuvering missile interceptors such as
The agency also said that
if Taiwan were subject to salvoes of the more than
1,000 short-range DF-11 and DF-15 the PLA aims at
it, almost all military infrastructure on the
island would be flattened. However, the
underground air base in the east coast town of
Hualien would be nearly impossible to hit from
west-to-east as the Central Mountain Range
The DF-16's higher climb and
resulting sharper angle of re-entry into the
atmosphere would possibly help solving the
remaining headache over Hualien for the PLA, a
retired high-ranking Taiwanese military source
told Asia Times Online.
What's not so
plausible, however, is whether the Chinese really
need such elaborated gadgetry in order to deter
the "Taiwanese independence forces". Washington
has denied the Taiwanese new fighter jets and is
seemingly working against the acquisition of
submarines and other sorts of punchy weapons
systems. Without such outside help, the likelihood
of the Taiwanese withstanding a Chinese attack is
In interviews, experts told Asia
Times Online where they thought China's new
medium-range missiles were aimed, if indeed they
existed and were deployed in Guangdong province.
The assessments differ, but no one sees mainland
Vietnam as the principal target.
Braeuner, a China and security expert at the
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,
said the DF-16 could serve multiple purposes.
"The extreme distances between the Chinese
mainland and the groups of islands claimed by
Beijing in the South China Sea require other means
than the situation in the Taiwan Strait," said
Braeuner, singling out blue-water warships and
improved medium-range missiles like the supposed
DF-16 as such means. "Also, Beijing definitely
intends to keep the US out of the South China Sea,
not only the neighbors."
director of GlobalSecurity.org, a US think-tank,
also doesn't believe the DF-16 is meant for
Vietnam. "I am thinking it is aimed at the West
Philippine Sea [the Philippines' name for the
South China Sea], rather than Vietnam," Pike said.
"One could imagine the combination of
long-range and a conventional warhead being useful
in the West Philippine Sea, where there would only
be a small number of targets. Vietnam is big, and
would swallow large numbers of DF-16s and never
According to Steve Tsang,
director of the University of Nottingham's China
Policy Institute, if China indeed deploys the new
DF-16 in Guangdong's Shaoguan, it will certainly
not help to ease tensions over the South China
Sea. In mid-April, Chinese fishing vessels and
semi-military maritime surveillance ships engaged
in a standoff there against the Philippine navy in
disputed waters off the Philippines' main island
"If anything, this will be seen
as threatening or provocative act from Vietnam's
perspective. But Taiwan will probably not get
overly concerned, as the missile threat there is
long-standing," Tsang said.
evaluated the DF-16's suspected range.
the Taipei Times is right, the missile has a range
of 1000-1200 km [in an earlier report, the daily
quoted an unnamed official who suspected a range
of between 1,000km and 1,500km]. If it's based in
Shaoguan, Taiwan will be close to the effective
maximum range of the missile, whereas the Spratlys
will be out of range entirely.
Paracels will be at the very edge of the range.
Northern Vietnam will be within range, but the
southern part of Vietnam will be out of range. But
then, if the DF-16s are meant for the South China
Sea, it will need to have anti-ship capacity to be
really meaningful", he said, emphasizing that
there's nothing suggesting that the DF-16 is an
effective anti-ship missile, and that none of the
Southeast Asian countries operates very large
surface ships that could be targeted by such
Tsang dismissed the idea that
China would employ a weapon like the DF-16 against
northern Vietnam over disputes in the South China
Sea, and concluded that the missiles will mainly
have direct implications for Taiwan.
"Regarding the South China Sea, it will
have a certain intimidating value. But any such
gain will be outweighed by the loss in diplomatic
terms in Southeast Asia as a whole," Tsang said.
"It will not be enough to intimidate
Vietnam into submission and will only make
Southeast Asian countries more concerned with
China's new assertive approach in the region."
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based
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