The East Asian security scene perennially edges around remaining precarious primarily with respect to the Taiwan Straits. In the current context, even as Mainland China and Taiwan have managed to keep their political relationship at rather balanced terms by evading any overt debate on reunification/independence, major irritants continue to loom large. Of these, China’s military modernization campaign assumes principal significance in wake of Beijing’s continuing focus on the Second Artillery Corps which makes for most of its strategic missile force.
The escalatory graph of Chinese missile capabilities continues to be a source of concern for China’s neighborhood, most importantly Taiwan. China’s deployment of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) deployed in the Fujian province opposite Taiwan include versions of DF-11, DF-15, and DF-15A missiles that reportedly are increasing at approximately 50-100 missiles per year. In addition, according to latest estimates by the US Department of Defense, China’s nuclear-capable Dong Hai (DH)-10 land attack cruise missile is now operational with estimates of China deploying anywhere between 50-250 of these missiles, to “improve the survivability, flexibility, and effectiveness of China’s nuclear forces.”
The modernization of China’s military appears driven so as to improve its strategic deterrence and more importantly, its potential to gain from the all important first-strike. Given China’s emphasis on modernization of the Second Artillery Corps, the future production of conventional missiles and upgrading the qualitative survivability of China’s nuclear-based missile arsenal from silo-based to road-mobile and from liquid-fuelled to solid-fuelled, will likely heighten the PLA’s aim of making its strategic nuclear forces more survivable—providing for a far more credible deterrent.
This naturally leads to the critical question of whether this increase and survivability of Chinese missiles would translate into becoming the primary driver for exerting military leverage over Taiwan in the coming years. In needs to be recalled here that the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis intended to send strong signals to the Republic of China. So, what then, could be plausible politico-military options that could be put to the table for Taiwan to consider as responses in building deterrence against the PRC?
Taiwan’s Response Plans for a Politico-Military Strategy
Military alternatives constitute to becoming the focal point for Taiwan’s passive defense options. These include dispersing military assets while simultaneously building upon rapid reaction capabilities for a probable Chinese missile attack. Currently, Taiwan possesses the American missile defense systems, PAC-2 version of interceptors which has its limitations against mounting Chinese missile capabilities. Taiwan is looking ahead towards the sale of advanced F-16 jet fighters and upgraded version of PAC-3 and a future naval missile defense system mounted on an Aegis destroyer from the US to put forth formidable defense against China’s military buildup.
While Taiwan’s politico-military establishment is marked by divisions over means to deal with the challenge emanating out of the PRC, missile testing undertaken by Taiwan in January 2011 attached a great degree of symbolism to it. Out of the total 19 air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles test-fired, as many as six failed to meet their target. Nevertheless, the timing of these tests was read in correlation to Beijing rolling out its first J-20 radar-evading stealth fighter over Chengdu in southwest China in early January 2011.
An alternative military option available to Taiwan is one wherein Taipei could launch air or missile strikes to thwart a Chinese missile attack at the time of launch. However, in order to execute this action, Taiwan would require advanced reconnaissance capabilities given the enhanced mobility acquired by Chinese missile launchers.
In addition, according to reports appearing in June 2011, Taiwan is in the planning stages of deploying missile boats in the South China Sea as well as tanks on disputed islands in wake of regional tensions flaring up in the region. Taiwanese Defense Ministry spokesman, David Lo, earlier expressed concern over coastguards that were stationed in Nansha (Spratlys) and Tungsha (Pratas) being armed only with light weapons. This in turn increases Taiwan’s anxiety over the ability of these coastguards to handle any escalation in conflict. It has been reported that Taiwan’s 47-tonne Seagull class boats are armed with two Hsiungfeng I missiles and a ship-to-ship weapon with a range of 24 miles.
As China assumes an abrasively assertive military posture in the backdrop of its robust military modernization campaign, the regional players are likely to concentrate upon building their own deterrence against a growing Chinese military footprint. This in turn, will have a critical impact on the consequent Chinese foreign policy orientations with reference to its existential territorial/maritime/boundary disputes that it shares in Asia. Taiwan today finds itself at the crossroads while juggling between critical domestic political debates over relations with Mainland China and simultaneously putting into place a viable deterrence against the PRC—thus underscoring the political/military fallout of the given scenario.
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies)