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.
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.
Be it as it may, the debate on Chinese missiles aiming at Taiwan is riddled with misleading arguments. When pundits and Taiwanese elected leaders say that the missiles are obstacle on the road to better relations, they certainly cannot mean that removing missiles would suddenly establish mutual trust and understanding. The presence of missiles as an evidence of lack of trust is certainly a problem for the disappearing minority of unification supporters in Taiwan. However, for everyone else, the differences with Beijing do not hinge on the missile threat to Taiwan. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it creates illusion that it is the missiles themselves that present the major problem. Remove missiles. Peace guaranteed. Not that simple.
I’ll remove the missiles for you, what will you do for me?
Those who ask for removal of missiles as some major step towards more peaceful relations unwittingly push Taiwan in the corner. What if Beijing decides to play the game and removes the missiles? Would China not request some trade-off? What if Beijing asks Taiwan to stop its own missiles program? Compliance would undermine Taiwan’s defense needs, and refusal would make it a hypocrite and troublemaker. Or what if Beijing asks for another “favor” in return? Say, commencement of political talks (presumably leading to unification)?
Raising the issue makes sense given the sensitivity for Taiwanese people, but potentially also includes costs that Taiwan could not afford to pay. Should China take the step, it would definitely present it as a major concession toward cross-Strait reconciliation and loss of credibility comes at greater cost for Taiwan than for China.
The worst part of such trade-off would be that removing the missiles is completely meaningless in terms of military balance across the Strait. China’s ballistic missiles are mounted on mobile launchers, which makes their redeployment back to their original positions a matter of few days. No one should doubt Beijing’s verbal creativity when justifying returning those missiles. In addition, apart from hundreds of ballistic missiles, the Chinese missile program has provided the PLA with a wide range of cruise missiles that can hit targets in Taiwan. Deployment of cruise missiles is not only more difficult to track (and therefore verify their removal), they are also more modular. Whereas DF-11 and DF-15 SRBMs need a truck-mounted launcher, cruise missiles can be fired from planes or ships in addition to land-based platforms.
This is not to say that the PLA would take the order to withdraw missiles lightly. For example, the 52nd base would have to remove its missiles from existing supporting infrastructure that include underground facilities and pre-surveyed launching positions. Removing missiles would be a logistical nightmare for the Second Artillery Corps, significantly affecting its combat readiness. Nevertheless, this would be primarily political decision and PLA would not disobey.
In any case, this would be a real problem for China only under the unlikely scenario of a sudden attack against Taiwan. The more likely scenario is a force build-up period, during which PLA could redeploy withdrawn missiles to original positions while China’s political leadership would step up pressure against Taiwan. Moreover, the PLA’s threat to Taiwan cannot be reduced to its missile arsenal. Even if China decides to dismantle all the SRBMs tomorrow, China would still possess formidable military capabilities that could be used against Taiwan.
Missiles are not the real problem
The presence of Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles targeting Taiwan is not the problem. The problem is Beijing’s desire to annex Taiwan. Taiwan would not be more secure with missiles out of the picture, however temporarily or permanently. Asking for their removal as if it is some major obstacle in bettering mutual relations is asking for unintended consequences, should Beijing call the bluff. The question should be why has Beijing not made the proposition itself yet.