Reports on Taiwan’s secret medium range missile tests come at a suspiciously unlikely time

For Asia Times Online

The first months of 2010 have brought about great changes for Taiwan-China relations. Not since the end of the Chinese Civil War has there been such an abundance of gestures of goodwill between China’s CCP and Taiwan’s ruling KMT. The signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) is imminent. Against domestic opposition, Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou invests huge political capital in the ongoing process of cross-straits reconciliation.

Still, two recent incidents imply that Taiwan’s KMT government is far from being as submissive to China as opponents claim. Firstly, President Ma publicly requested the US to sell Taiwan advanced F-16C/D fighters. Secondly, media reports claimed that Taiwan secretly tested medium range missiles capable of striking vital Chinese targets. Not only Shanghai and China’s ballistic missile bases at the east coast, but also Beijing, Chongqing and the Three Gorges Dam are now believed to be within reach of Taiwan’s arsenal of deterrent weapons.

Yet, in sharp contrast with hallmark tirades that in the past condemned Taiwanese arms projects, Beijing stays remarkably mute this time. Although having snubbed the US as a warning over a possible sale of F-16C/D fighters to Taiwan by not inviting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on his recent Asia trip, Beijing refrained from criticizing Ma Ying-jeou’s administration for Taiwan’s role in developments that could revive a cross-straits arms race.

The location of the alleged Taiwanese medium range missile tests is Pingdong County. It’s a tropical area in southern Taiwan where medium income families spend their holidays. As a further unique feature of the region, annually in April huge crowds of youngsters descend on the area for drug-fueled partying at Taiwan’s largest open-air music festival. Every now and then, on streets packed with surfboard-carrying vacationers, military convoys drive by at walking speed.

Apart from holiday resorts, surf beaches and pineapple plantations, there are plenty of military bases in Pingdong County, though none of them seems as much shrouded in mystery as the Jiupeng base. In October 2009, the base reportedly witnessed how Taiwan’s military suffered the failure of its largest-ever missile exercise. Tested were Hsiung Feng IIE (HF-2E) cruise missiles.

The domestically developed HF-2E has a range of 800km and could therefore reach Shanghai and China’s southeast coast. The project which was initiated by Ma Ying-jeou’s predecessors Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian entered mass production stage in 2005. According to Hong Kong and Taiwan media reports, final tests were due to be held around June.

Taiwan has long been denying the existence of a medium range missile program. Nonetheless, earlier this month, nearly coinciding with the timeframe of Taipei’s and Beijing’s plans to sign ECFA, domestic and international media picked up on a story on secretly obtained information from high-ranking members of the Taiwanese military. It is claimed that in the days around June 4 at Pingdong County’s Jiupeng base not only HF-2E cruise missiles were test-fired, but also medium range missiles. Since the medium range missiles reportedly have a range of 1900-2200km, targets as far as Beijing and China’s giant Three Gorges Dam could be attacked. A strike on the world’s largest electricity-generating plant would endanger the lives of millions of Chinese civilians since the cities of Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai are situated downstream of the dam.

The Hong Kong magazine Yazhou Zhoukan suspects that the genuine purpose of combined maneuvers held around that time involving Taiwan’s navy, air force and army was nothing but the attempted cover-up of medium range missiles tests conducted at Jiupeng base.

Taiwanese defense officials dismissed the reports but nonetheless confirmed that ‘various weapons systems’ have been worked on as scheduled.

Observers of cross-straits defense issues don’t seem to have too many doubts over the correctness of the allegations.

“I believe Taiwan’s military has continuously been developing medium range missiles. Changes of administrations have either accelerated or slowed down the project but never stopped”, says Wang Jyh-Perng, Reserve Captain of the Taiwan Navy and associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies in an interview with Asia Times Online. “However, I don’t believe that these media reports are based on recent information collected from high-ranking members of the Taiwanese military.”

Wang further expounds his suspicions that members of Taiwan’s opposition obtained the information a while ago and waited to pass them on to the media at an appropriate time.

Wang supposes that in the eyes of Ma Ying-jeou’s opponents the ‘appropriate time’ has come with the imminent signing of ECFA. “To me, the whistleblower’s objective was simply to interfere with the ECFA signing process and to highlight the fact that China still has 1,500 of its own missiles aimed at Taiwan”, Wang says.

Since neither Beijing nor Taipei signaled the existence of disputes over the matter, the opposition’s plan doesn’t seem to have worked. On the contrary, the alleged scheme to disturb the signing of ECFA is likely to backfire.

In 2008, Chen Shui-bian’s DPP lost the presidential elections for two reasons. First and foremost, voters were turned off by corruption allegations against Chen and his family and second because fierce anti-China rhetoric that wasn’t supported by the majority of the Taiwanese.

As far as the incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou is concerned, issues are quite the opposite. Instead of having the reputation to be corrupt and stubbornly opposed to cross straits reconciliation, a relative large part of the Taiwanese population dislikes him for his overly clean, out-of-touch image (Teflon Man) and his, what they say to be, submissive approach when dealing with Beijing.

After all, it is Ma Ying-jeou’s administration that prohibits Taiwanese from displaying their own country’s national flags in proximity to meetings held with mainland delegations. Not surprisingly, voices that accuse Ma’s KMT of selling out Taiwan’s sovereignty are not only being heard from hardcore supporters of Taiwanese independence.

To make up for Ma’s image of weakness and to counter widespread criticism that the Hong Kong-born president simply ‘doesn’t love Taiwan’, the newly fueled notions that the KMT government seeks to obtain powerful Taiwan-made deterrent weaponry could come in handy for Ma’s administration. Like this Ma is not only seen as standing up to China, but also to the US. In Taiwan, it is a widespread public perception that the US has been overcharging the country in arms deals.

The rumors of Taiwanese medium range missile tests and Ma Ying-jeou’s request for American F-16C/D fighter jets didn’t lead to Beijing furiously condemning Ma’s KMT government. Therefore the ECFA negotiations which are immensely important to the Chinese government could proceed undisturbed. As a matter of fact, Washington was the only party involved that received the blame.

Wang Jyh-Perng doesn’t believe the F-16C/D sale will happen because according to him, Ma’s administration only pretends to be interested in the purchase. He says: “Ma keeps stressing that Taiwan must develop sufficient defensive strength, but he does so only to cater to public opinion and to keep the US happy.”

In Wang’s eyes, it’s a precarious show Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT government puts on. Although the current cross-straits situation is somewhat relaxed, Wang warns Taiwan to stay alert. There is a realistic danger that future Chinese domestic problems develop into external conflict, he says.

Anyway, in Wang’s eyes, neither medium range missiles nor cruise missiles nor fighter jets are what a country like Taiwan that faces a much larger opponent needs because in the end of the day Taiwan’s economy would be too small to support an arms race with China.

Wang instead recommends the purchase of inexpensive and effective submarines for a military that is forced to rely on asymmetrical warfare. Comparing Taiwan’s situation to that of North Korea, Wang dryly words on his blog: “The (recent) sinking of the (South Korean) Cheonan makes clear that a party that finds itself at a disadvantage can still gain an asymmetric advantage and that the submarine is the weapon to accomplish this.”

 

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