HONG KONG — In a potentially significant move, China is reported to have pulled back some of its missiles along the Fujian coast facing Taiwan, something that the United States and Taiwan have been urging China to do for some time. An article in Taiwan’s United Daily News on Thursday reported that “the Chinese communists had moved some of the missile troops from Fujian in the southeast coastal region back to their base in the northwest.”

Yet, a military official in Taipei, who declined to be identified, said Friday that Taiwan had no evidence that China had withdrawn some of its missiles. Also, a Pentagon official, in remarks made over a week ago but only released Friday, said that Taiwan would be confronted with 600 mainland missiles by 2005.

Washington and Taipei had both urged Beijing to withdraw its roughly 400 missiles on the coast facing Taiwan. Last October, Chinese President Jiang Zemin proposed that, in return for China withdrawing these missiles, the U.S. would reduce arms sales to Taiwan. Washington, however, was unwilling to link arms sales to Taiwan with such a missile pullback.

The United Daily News article, citing Chinese military sources, said the missile troops being withdrawn were returning to the Lanzhou Military Region, in the northwest. However, the article warned that it was unclear whether the troop movement was part of a normal rotation or was a permanent withdrawal.

If the withdrawal of missile units from the coast turns out to be more than a normal rotation, then it should be seen as a goodwill gesture being extended by China, both to the U.S. and to Taiwan. China may well be hoping that such a move will result in a reciprocal gesture from Taiwan or the U.S. If so, China may need to be patient, because it is highly unlikely that a single gesture, which can easily be reversed through another redeployment, will result in anything tangible.

In fact, the military significance of a pullback is minimal, since the missiles are mobile and can be redeployed along the coast again at any time. Moreover, China has developed medium-range missiles, such as the Dong Feng-21, which can be used to target Taiwan not along the coast but further inland.

A simple pullback of missiles is unlikely to affect U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, since the sale of a single weapons system may require months, even years, to complete. If China wishes to see reciprocal action on the part of the U.S. and Taiwan, it will have to take a series of actions to show that it has no hostile intent toward Taiwan.

According to the United Daily News, the Chinese redeployment occurred around the Chinese New Year. Interestingly, an article in the Taipei Times on Feb. 13 quoted a Taiwan army general as warning that Taiwan faced not only short-range missiles in Fujian but also longer-range missiles deployed in the interior, mainly in Jiangxi Province.

The general said: “If China does withdraw, as urged by our government leaders, the short-range missiles deployed across the Taiwan Strait, it will have to choose the [medium range] Dong Feng-21 as the new weapon to intimidate us.”

The American-made Patriot PAC-II Plus missiles are Taiwan’s primary defense against China’s short-range missiles. But if Taiwan is forced to defend itself against the longer-range Dong Feng-21, it will have to consider acquiring Patriot PAC-III Plus missiles, which are still being tested by the U.S.

If the reported withdrawal of short-range missiles is confirmed, Taiwan should seek ways to make a return gesture to show the mainland that its goodwill is being reciprocated.

Similarly, the U.S., which had suggested such a pullback in the first place, would be wise not to dismiss the move out of hand as being militarily insignificant. It should, at the very least, show appreciation that its proposal has been acted upon, and suggest what else can be done to slow down or reverse the arms race across the Taiwan Strait.

A potentially much more significant event in terms of mainland-Taiwan relations may take place in April. A conference is to be held at that time in Singapore to mark the 10th anniversary of the historic meeting between Taiwan envoy Koo Chen-fu and mainland envoy Wang Daohan. Both men have been invited to attend and both, it appears, have indicated acceptance.

If the two elder statesmen do meet, it would mark a very significant step forward toward improved relations between Taiwan and the mainland, since such a meeting cannot possibly take place without the approval of the respective governments. Taiwan-mainland relations have been deadlocked since 1999, when then Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui angered China by saying the mainland and Taiwan are separate countries, with a “special state-to-state” relationship. It is time for the deadlock to be broken.

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