Monday, April 28, 2008

Missile malarkey

Missile talk more symbolism than substance

by Jonathan Adams
Far East Economic Review, April 16, 2008

Taipei — A rumor that recently made the rounds here was that China may withdraw half of its missiles aimed at Taiwan before Ma Ying-jeou’s May 20 inauguration, as a goodwill gesture to the incoming administration. President-elect Ma himself has mentioned the missiles repeatedly, saying that a condition for cross-Strait peace talks is that Beijing must first withdraw them.

That seems at first glance like raising a deliberately high bar, possibly with the aim of ensuring that peace talks—which would be highly controversial in Taiwan—never happen at all. After all, it’s hard to imagine Beijing removing what it sees as a major part of its deterrent against Taiwan independence.

But according to analysts I spoke to last week, the whole missile issue is misleading. If the much-hyped coming cross-Strait detente doesn’t break down before then, we can expect a lot of symbolism, but little substance, in negotiations over the missiles.

First, the numbers. According to the Taiwan government’s latest count, Beijing has 1,400 tactical ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan from the southern Chinese coast, as well as cruise missiles. That’s up from just about 200 missiles when pro-independence Chen Shui-bian took office in 2000.

Security expert and former Taiwan defense official Lin Chong-Pin explains that the missiles’ purpose is fourfold. The first is psychological: they are what he calls a “dangling sword over independence advocates in Taiwan.” China itself has insisted the missiles are aimed only at diehard separatists, not the vast majority of peace-loving Taiwan “compatriots.”

Of course, this raises the question of how Chinese missiles will distinguish between friend and foe as they tear through the sky above the Strait.

The separatist-seeking missiles have other uses, says Mr. Lin. They’re a bargaining chip in cross-Strait negotiations, like the ones Mr. Ma could start with Beijing. Third, they’re an investment—if peace comes to the Strait they can be resold to other countries.

Finally, there’s another, tactical purpose: to halt the advance of incoming U.S. aircraft carrier groups that would presumably rush to Taiwan’s aid in a crisis. Mr. Lin cites Chinese military strategists on how the increasingly accurate and longer-range missiles could fly over the island and create a “wall of fire” east of Taiwan to force carrier groups to withdraw.

Fortunately, such scenarios are extremely unlikely. In the next few years, it’s the missiles’ role as a bargaining chip that could be the most important.

Mr. Lin says Mr. Ma’s demand that China withdraw its missiles before peace talks can begin was just an opening negotiating position. The missile issue is not necessarily that big an obstacle, he said. “Ma had good reason to up the ante—you never start at a low point, you start as high as you can go,” said Mr. Lin. “I don’t think the high demand by Ma will be an obstacle to Beijing and Taipei talking.”

One key is that Mr. Ma is talking about “withdrawing” missiles, not dismantling them. As Taiwan’s defense minister has emphasized, the missiles are on mobile launch vehicles that can easily be moved. Even if they were rolled inland, they could be moved back in a crisis. A "withdrawal" would therefore be mostly symbolic, with China displaying a less aggressive military posture and winning public-relations points in the process.

Still, there’s another hurdle. Chu Shulong, of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, says he thinks Beijing will likely raise the issue of U.S. arms sales to the island if Mr. Ma pushes for a missile rollback.

"The mainland side will link Ma’s demand for a withdrawal of missiles targeted at Taiwan to Taiwan's purchase of arms,” said Mr. Chu. Beijing could demand, for example, that Taiwan halt at least some arms purchases in return for a partial missile pullback.

The U.S. is now Taiwan’s sole supplier of major weapons systems. There are four major U.S. systems currently in the pipeline: advanced Patriot missile defense batteries, sub-hunting and patrol aircraft, submarines, and F-16 fighter jets. Taiwan has agreed to buy the sub-hunting planes, and Ma supports the F-16s purchase (Washington is currently mulling Taiwan's request for the planes.)

Mr. Ma doesn’t seem likely to use the F-16s as a bargaining chip—he’s said himself that they’re more urgent than the submarine purchase. Analysts agree. "Ma’s military advisers will tell him we clearly need F-16s to maintain our qualitative edge over the PRC,” said Mr. Lin in Taipei. As China’s military buildup accelerates, qualitative air superiority is one of Taiwan’s few remaining advantages.

But Mr. Ma is noncommittal on the submarines, which are more controversial in Taiwan because many believe they’re too expensive. Here, there could be an opening for a symbolic agreement with Beijing. Steve Tsang, head of Oxford University’s Taiwan Studies Program, described one possibility.

"If it happens, the linking of the withdrawal of missiles and arms sales [by the U.S. to Taiwan] will be a much more imaginative formula,” said Mr. Tsang. "Both will be purely symbolic. Taiwan will give up purchases of certain weapon systems from the U.S. that Taiwan can’t afford anyway. And China’s withdrawal of missiles from coastal regions means pulling them back a few hundred miles. It doesn't mean they’ll be destroyed. Whether they're located in Fujian or Sichuan makes very little difference—they can be moved back to Fujian in a matter of days.”

Of course, Mr. Tsang and others note that even if the two sides reach that or a similar agreement, it would only get them to the negotiating table. “Real negotiations for a peace treaty will prove to be much more difficult,” said Mr. Tsang.

So difficult, in fact, that most observers see a peace deal as pie in the sky. Political peace talks will likely be postponed, as China and Taiwan instead focus on practical economic issues. And if Mr. Ma decides, for whatever reason, to avoid peace talks altogether, the missiles are a convenient excuse.

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