China's Missile Guessing Game
On March 16, the head of Taiwan's principal intelligence agency rocked Taiwanese lawmakers by telling them that China's People's Liberation Army may be deploying newer and more dangerous ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan.
However, National Security Bureau Director Tsai Der-sheng appears to know what nobody else knows. Seemingly no one, including US intelligence, had heard of such a weapon system until Tsai brought it up before the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee. It was agents spying for Taiwan on Chinese soil who sniffed out the weapon, known as the Dong Feng-16, and not the surveillance satellites of Western powers, the security bureau chief said.
The PLA's Second Artillery Corps, Tsai said, has deployed or allegedly intends to deploy quite a number of ballistic missile types falling under the category Dong Feng, which translates simply into "East Wind." (China has also developed the much-discussed still vague anti-ship ballistic missile, the "aircraft carrier-killer" DF-21D in addition to the more advanced DF-21 E, although rumors have the deployment scrapped for now.)
The DF-11 and DF-15 are now in place, meant to reduce Taiwan's defense infrastructure to rubble if a Taiwanese government dares declare independence. These come with a range of 500 to 700km and carry up to a single 500kg warhead. It is these two features that somewhat confine the current weapon systems' field of application. That is because in case of an outbreak of war, they could hardly hit US forces on Okinawa and definitely not those on Guam. In addition, at least some of those heading for Taiwan could be brought down by the Patriot anti-missile system (PAC-3) stationed on the island.
But if what Tsai said proves true, the DF-16 could remedy these shortcomings. According to one expert interviewed by local media, the faster re-entry of a longer-range missile like the DF-16 and its ability to carry multiple warheads could render Taiwanese PAC-3 obsolete. Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, pointed out that the longer a ballistic missile's range, the higher it must climb to reach its target. The higher it climbs, the more time it takes to descend. This gives gravity more time to accelerate the descent, making it too fast for missile interceptors. Fisher said another feature of the DF-16 that could thwart the PAC-3s is the new missile's alleged multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs). The PAC-3 system can only handle one incoming missile target. Tsai deferred questions over whether the DF-16 carries multiple warheads.
Analysts approached by Asia Sentinel for comment take issue with the NSB Director's disclosure as such rather than with the mysterious weapon's technical aspects. One security analyst told Asia Sentinel, that Tsai might be attempting to blunt publicity over mmedia reports on Feb. 9 that a Taiwanese Army Maj. General, Lo Hsien-che, had been arrested on Jan. 25 on charges of spying for China. Tsai's disclosure may have partly been intended to redress the damage and embarrassment caused by Maj-Gen Lo's alleged treachery by highlighting the intelligence success of Taiwan's spies in China.
To Wendell Minnick, a senior observer on Taiwan military affairs and Asia Bureau Chief for Defense News, there are hints that the Taiwanese government is been trying to lay a false trail.
"NSB Director Tsai's comments have raised more doubts than confirmations. Some have accused Tsai of getting the designation wrong; others have suggested he is hyping the Chinese missile threat to get the US to release more arms," Minnick said.
Minnick also blamed Tsai for giving only scant details, igniting speculation by the media. But according to Minnick, if the purpose of the announcement has really been pressuring the US for new arms sales, it is not going to work.
"This does not help Taiwan's case among defense analysts in [Washington] DC. If anything, it raises questions about Tsai's motives about mentioning a new missile system no one has heard about before."
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, a NGO which among other things also functions as a conduit between Taiwan and the US defense industry, agrees with Minnick. According to the US-Taiwan Business Council's president, the NSB head's statement speaks to the increasing frustration the Ma government feels over the increased PRC military threat and the unwillingness of the US to act in a manner that is supportive of Taiwan.
"As we approach the next Taiwan presidential election, the stakes for Mr. Ma rise as China puts more pressure on Taiwan to address political and military matters," Hammond-Chambers said. "Given the lack of consensus on Taiwan regarding unification, Mr. Ma requires robust US backing to assist him in discussing the next phase of issues with China."
Hammond-Chambers warned that if the US is not prepared to act, Taiwan's position could be weakened and the specter of Chinese heavy-handedness or adventurism would be raised.
Hammond-Chambers's conclusion gives fuel to Minnick's assertion that Tsai's mention of the DF-16 was meant as a wake-up call for Washington rather than a mere instruction to Taiwanese legislators.
"Mr. Ma's government must continue to highlight the growing military imbalance in the Strait to impress on America that a response is required," Hammond-Chambers said.
It isn't far-fetched to assume that China has continued to develop its ballistic missiles despite the recently warming Taipei-Beijing ties. According to Taiwan's Chinese-language media, China is developing at least two types of tactical missiles, one by China Aerospace Science and Technology Cooperation (CASC) and the other by CASIC Sanjiang Space Group. One of those two could possibly be the DF-16 Tsai had sought to blow the whistle on.
Nobody doubts that if there is such a thing as the DF-16, its main focus would be Taiwan.
"Taiwan still is the most important target of China's modernization efforts; a deployment of the newest and most effective weapon systems along the Taiwan Strait therefore makes sense", said Oliver Bräuner, an analyst on Chinese foreign and security policy with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). There are no indications whatsoever that Beijing is heeding President Ma's demands for a missile withdrawal, Bräuner said.
"But naturally, there won't be any confirmation on this coming from Beijing," he added.
Arthur Ding, an analyst at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, the story of a missile like the alleged DF-16 being stationed at the Second Artillery Corps' bases at this stage makes sense.
"Although the atmosphere between Taiwan and China has improved since President Ma took office in May 2008, China is still concerned with the possibility of the opposition DPP returning to power, and this gives the PLA a good excuse to continue its missile program," Ding concluded.
Jens Kastner writes regularly for Asia Sentinel. Wang Jhy-perng is a military analyst with the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies in Taipei.