Following the return of Hong Kong in July 1997 and the return of Macau in December 1999, Beijing’s attention will logically turn to Taiwan. The island’s survival depends on preserving its technically advanced air force and enlisting the help of the United States.

China is constantly looking at ways to neutralize Taiwan’s air defenses and keep the U.S. at arms’s length. The cheapest and most effective option it has found so far is a combination of short-range ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles.

In one or two years’ time, it will have finished developing the maneuverable short-range ballistic missiles, the M-11 (range 300 km), which has aerodynamic tail fins to make it maneuverable, and the M-9 (range 600 km), which has cold-gas controls for similar purposes. These missiles, possibly with global positioning and inertial navigation-guidance systems, could have an accuracy of 20 to 30 meters. They could descend from an altitude of 30 km and then be tipped over so that the angle of re-entry is more acute, or even vertical. That means they could hit targets in Taiwan currently thought to be secure on the eastern side of the 3,000-meter-high Chung Yang Shan (Central Mountains). If the missiles are armed with submunitions or mini-cruise missiles, they could easily punch holes in concrete runways at, for example, the Jiashan air base near Hualian in the northeast and Chihhong in the southeast. By the year 2000 or 2001, China will have enough accurate M-9 and M-11 missiles to neutralize most of Taiwan’s air defenses and destroy its navy in ports such as Kaohsiung and Su-ao.

Beijing is also developing a long-range cruise missile derived from Russian technology. Known as the Xiong Ying 20, this missile, with turbofan and booster, has a range of 1,500-2,000 km at Mach 0.9. Using minicomputers, GPS and INS, it could fly out to sea to the north of Taipei, make a U-turn and then come back in from an easterly direction to hit fixed targets on Taiwan’s east coast — such as the air bases at Hualien, Chihhong, Pingtung North and Pingtung South. China is also working on shore-based C-301 supersonic (Mach 2) cruise missiles (range 100-200 km); an upgraded, longer-range (800 km), air-launched C-601 antiship missile and a submarine-launched Tomahawk-type cruise missile, known as the Ying Ji 82 (range 200 km).

Taiwan has considered a counterforce short-range ballistic missile of its own (the Tien Ma, range 1,000 km) that can cover much of the adjacent coastal region of China. But a counterforce SRBM is not a sensible option for Taiwan. It is too provocative, and besides, it is not feasible to target the M-9s and M-11s before launch because they are mobile systems.

The mainland missile threat has forced Taiwan’s defense planners to look seriously at antimissile systems such as the Patriot. Taiwan already has Patriot II antimissile batteries in place to protect Taipei and Kaohsiung, but the intercept success rate of the Patriot, even the improved version, is not reassuring. This is what makes the idea of a modern theater missile defense such an attractive proposition for Taiwan.

TMD is already under active consideration by Japan and the U.S. in the wake of an overflight of Japan by a North Korean missile last year. As the term “theater” implies, a TMD system could provide an umbrella that shields Japan and the region from incoming missiles fired from any country, not just North Korea. In this sense, if extended to cover Taiwan, TMD would appear to solve Taiwan’s vulnerability to the threat of missiles from the mainland.

China has strongly opposed TMD on the grounds that it would destabilize the existing balance of power in Northeast Asia. It sees TMD as part of a U.S. effort to counter what would otherwise be a natural expansion of China’s regional influence, and as another step by the U.S. in its march toward the development of antiballistic missile systems. If extended to include Taiwan, TMD would eliminate the only credible option available to China to force Taiwan to the negotiating table on Beijing’s terms.

While a TMD has some attractions, it will not provide a permanent solution to Taiwan’s China problem. For every defense, there is a counter. If a TMD system is eventually deployed in Northeast Asia, China could find ways to counter its effectiveness, by, for example, fitting missiles with decoys, increasing the number of warheads through the use of multiple independent re-entry vehicles to overwhelm the shield by sheer numbers, or by using maneuverable re-entry vehicles that can zigzag to avoid interception.

Taiwan’s options are not, of course, just military ones. It has used Confucian virtues and a nonprovocative approach to deal with China. This was manifest in the visit to China in October 1998 by Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Koo Chen-fu. He walked into the lion’s den, so to speak, and reopened the process of reasoned dialogue with his mainland counterpart, Wang Daohan, chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits. On Oct. 18, 1998, the patrician-looking Koo also held talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Koo acknowledged Jiang’s reforms and liberalization on the mainland, but he also spoke about the need for democracy in China. Jiang, for his part, sang a few lines from the Taiwanese National Anthem and recited Sun Yat-sen’s last words about one China.

Both sides have their differences, and after 50 years of sometimes acrimonious hostility and distrust, it is not easy to start thinking about a common Chinese future. But, as Taiwanese Premier Vincent Siew observed, you have to go slowly to walk a long way.

Taiwan has a lot to offer China. Not only could it assist in the reform of state-owned enterprises, it could also lend the benefit of its uniquely Chinese experience of transition from authoritarianism to democracy. China, likewise, has much to offer Taiwan in terms of market opportunities. A spiraling competition of missiles and countermissile defenses is not in the interest of either side.

On the other hand, if there is to be an equitable solution to the China-Taiwan issue, the smaller actor, Taiwan, needs reliable guarantees about its security. It has to be strong to avoid being forced into one-sided negotiations. China might want reassurances about where Taiwan is heading, but it also needs to think about giving Taiwan and its leaders the dignity and living space they deserve. Otherwise, a TMD might become the only option for Taiwan.

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