Why Removing Taiwan Strait Missiles is Not the Real Issue

People's Liberation Army Air Force Xian HY-6 at Zhuhai Airshow . HY-6 is a air-refuelling version of China's principal strategic bomber capable of carrying land-attack/anti-ship cruise missiles. Image Credit: CC by Li Pang/Wikimedia Commons.

People’s Liberation Army Air Force Xian HY-6 at Zhuhai Airshow . HY-6 is a air-refuelling version of China’s principal strategic bomber capable of carrying land-attack/anti-ship cruise missiles. Image Credit: CC by Li Pang/Wikimedia Commons.

On November 7th, after meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping, Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou said that Xi promised his missiles are not aimed at Taiwan. The hundreds of missiles stationed in the Nanjing Military Region has indeed been a powerful, yet sometimes exaggerated, symbol of China’s threat to Taiwan.

Ever since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996, Chinese missiles have become a staple in Taiwan’s public discourse regarding the appropriate form of relations with China. In July and August of 1995, the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) has conducted drills in the Taiwan Strait that included missile tests. In March 1996, the PLA fired missiles near Taiwan’s major ports. Even though there was no real danger of confrontation, China’s posturing revealed to everyone in Taiwan how easily the PLA is able to penetrate Taiwan’s four-layered defense perimeter (Kinmen and Mazu islands, the middle of the Taiwan Strait and the Penghu islands, Taiwan’s west coast, and the western plains and major urban areas).

The symbolic prominence of Chinese missiles is not very surprising. The numbers sound terrifying. China has at least 1,200 short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) of the DF-11 and DF-15 variety, with estimated range of 300-900 kilometers, depending on the payload. Put in service in the 1980s and 1990s, both types have been upgraded throughout their service in order to achieve greater accuracy.

The missiles in the conversation

Nowadays, the missile argument is an inherent part of the larger debate on China-Taiwan relations. Therefore, when Xi allegedly told Ma during their meeting on November 7th that the missiles are not aimed at Taiwan, more than a few gave it a thumbs up for its comical value.

However, Xi’s argument is not completely new and the most hilarious one. In 2008, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) argued that missiles are aimed only at separatists in Taiwan. In a recent piece for Taipei Times, former AIT director Stephen Young touched upon the missile issue (and Xi’s claim):

If Xi had offered a concrete proposal to reduce military deployments, particularly the forest of forward-deployed missiles across the Taiwan Strait, that would have been a real step forward. His disingenuous claim that these missiles are not aimed at Taiwan is simply laughable.

F-16 belonging to Dutch air force in hardened aicraft shelter. ROCAF also utilizes hardened shelters to protect its planes against missile strikes. Image Credit:  CC by U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

F-16 belonging to Dutch air force in hardened aicraft shelter. ROCAF also utilizes hardened shelters to protect its planes against missile strikes. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

From a military perspective, it is not terribly difficult to prove Xi has us for fools. Considering known locations of PLA’s Second Artillery Corps bases and operational range of DF-11 and DF-15 SRBMs, there is not much else to hit other than Taiwan. Unit that would be primary responsible for actions against Taiwan is the Second Artillery Corps’ 52nd base with its HQ in Huangshan, Anhui Province, responsible for nearly all of China’s conventional SRBMs.

However, it is not just deployment of missiles within reach of Taiwan that has a tangible impact on how the missiles are perceived. In addition to missiles’ destructive power, the psychological effect of the images depicting hundreds of missiles raining on Taiwan is in many ways more powerful than the actual threat [article continues here].

My piece for Ketagalan Media published on 20 November 2015, continues here.

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