For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
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).
Although the 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.
In recent weeks when the rivalry between China and Vietnam and the Philippines over the potentially energy-rich South China Sea
reached unprecedented heights, China’s CCTV channel 13 showed a clip ostensibly routinely applauding the nation’s armed forces.
Somewhere in an undisclosed urban location in China, a mobile missile launcher was shown driving around and then parking in a military garage.
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.
The 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.
The Taipei 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 specifically”.
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 Taiwan’s PAC-3.
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 protects it.
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 tiny.
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.
Oliver 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.”
John Pike, 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 notice.”
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 of Luzon.
“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.
Tsang then evaluated the DF-16’s suspected range.
“If 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.
“The 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 anyway.
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.”