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China and Taiwan’s arms build-up

Taiwan’s mass production of a long-range missile last month as part of the plan to modernise  its military has once again underscored how large and real the Chinese threat of annexation  of the island nation has become.

The twin developments of the missile production and the development of three additional missile models follow closely on the heels of China’s biggest ever military intrusion into Taiwanese air in late January. On January 23, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew over a dozen aircraft over Taiwan’s air identification defence zone (ADIZ). The planes included a Shaanxi Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft, four J-16 fighter jets and eight Xian H-6K bombers. The next day, a second sortie intruded into the Taiwanese airspace, comprising 15 aircraft — two Y-8 anti-submarine planes, two SU-30 fighter jets, six J-10 jet fighters, four J-16s and one Y-8 reconnaissance plane.

Reuters reported that “Taiwan’s armed forces, dwarfed by China’s, are in the midst of a modernisation programme to offer a more effective deterrent, including the ability to hit back at bases deep within China in the event of a conflict”.

The reactions were immediate. The Chinese reaction of shock and anger was expected. But the  United States reacted the sharpest, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead America’s Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, saying: The point at which China’s People’s  Liberation Army (PLA) would be equipped for a mission to attack Taiwan was “much closer  than most think”. “We have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities like (the Pacific Deterrence Initiative) in place in the near term and with urgency,” Aquilino said, referring to a mandate written into the 2021 National Defence Authorisation Act to fulfil the national defence strategy and maintain a military edge over China.

A professor at the National War College in Washington, Bernard Cole, was quoted by Forbes as saying that the two sorties represented “a dress rehearsal” for an attack on Taiwan. Noted China security affairs specialist Ian Easton went a step ahead and provided a list of targets he has noted in his book, “The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia”. The list is sourced from secret PLA military documents.

Easton has predicted on the basis of a strategic study of China’s military strategy for Taiwan that the first wave of missile attacks will target “important command and control centres, early warning radars, airstrips and air defence batteries”. The second wave would “use high-powered microwave and laser weapons to destroy computer hardware and electronic systems”. The third wave will comprise “H-6 bombers and fighters to fire missiles and bombs at an even wider variety of targets across the country”.

Simultaneously, Easton claims, “the PLA will carry out key point strikes designed to quickly take out Taiwan’s government, with the Presidential Office likely ‘the first’ to be hit”. Finally, as heavy bombardment commences on military and infrastructure establishments, the PLA Air Force will “drop bunker-busting bombs” to target Taiwanese military leadership and target the country’s “fuel supplies and power grid, striking every oil refinery, pipeline, power plant, and transformer in sight”.

Taiwan’s deterrence is becoming common knowledge only after the announcement of its missile production programme. It is expected to already have ground-based, possibly mobile, “short-range missiles” that can thwart Chinese “amphibious assaults”. American national  security magazine, Defence One says: “Taiwan is already building these sorts of weapons,  including the Hsiung Feng 2E, a subsonic “Tomahawk-like” cruise missile with a maximum  range of 600 kilometres; and the Hsiung Feng III, a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile with a  160 kilometre maximum range, but which could conceivably be reconfigured for other  purposes.” A supersonic land attack cruise missile with a 1,200-kilometre range, the Yung Feng, is also under production, it says. Taiwan’s road-mobile Hsiung Feng cruise missiles “could easily survive and engage in counter strikes on enemy ships, amphibious staging areas, and airbases”.

American military experts have already begun to find out ways in which the United States can help Taiwan’s modernisation plans without directly provoking China. The United States is Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier and has never hidden its intent to invest in Taiwan’s military counter-balance to China’s aggressive posturing. These include the Biden administration informing Taiwan that the latter’s acquisition of more missiles (Washington is Taipei’s biggest supplier of arms will not be seen as punishable by denying future arms sales. The Americans do not want to be caught in a position where Taiwan uses the military equipment form something other than defending itself against an invasion.

Officially, though, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has stressed the importance of developing an “asymmetrical deterrent, using mobile equipment that is hard to find and destroy, and capable of hitting targets far from Taiwan’s coast”.

The American concern, however, remains unchanged that an augmented military arsenal “might tempt Taiwan to launch a first strike against Beijing to knock it out or to drag the United States into a conflict” The two situations are considered highly “implausible” and the US anyway has the ability to what is called in military parlance “invoke strategic ambiguity to remain on the side lines”. A second view emerging from the Americans is that “a robust Taiwanese missile arsenal might even help control escalation if Washington decides to intervene in a cross-Strait conflict”.

Either way, the rest of 2021 gives the US the opportunity to give Taiwan the  opportunity to “acquire a much larger inventory of ground-based, short-range missiles”, a “realistic and relatively quick way to improve cross-Strait deterrence”.

 Tsonga is a defence studies expert based in Virginia, USA.

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