As I argued in an article in the Taipei Times on July 15, security experts who initially warmly welcomed rapprochement between Taiwan and China and claimed that the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was ushering in a new era of peace in the Taiwan Strait are slowly starting to realize that “peace” notwithstanding — and we’re still very far from reaching that stage — China continues to build up its military at an alarming pace, and one that does not reflect the emerging detente in the Taiwan Strait.
Academics like former AIT director Richard Bush III, whose pro-KMT views (and, conversely, bias against the DPP) are no secret, sighed in relief when Ma’s KMT defeated Frank Hsieh’s DPP in the 2008 elections and immediately put on blinders as they waxed enthusiastically about Ma’s China policies, while fears grew in Taiwan that Ma’s approach to cross-strait relations was coming at too high a price in terms of human rights and national security.
A few months ago, however, Bush and others began asking why, if relations across the Taiwan Strait were going so well, China was continuing to modernize its military and investing in weapons systems that, while not all specifically designed for a Taiwan contingency, had most assuredly dual-use capabilities and could be used in such a scenario.
Such weapons included the development of an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) based on a variant of the DF-21/CSS-5 solid propellant medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which has a range exceeding 1,500km, as well as second-generation nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (Type 094, or Jin-class).
Now even news agencies, which have traditionally been pro-KMT, are beginning to acknowledge the realities on the ground. In an analysis piece published on Tuesday, Reuters wrote that “[t]he balance of military power between China and Taiwan is shifting towards Beijing, leaving the island few options without US aid in the event of attack, a threat that has not eased despite warming ties.” Later in the article, Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow and Asian military expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, was quoted as saying that Beijing’s intention with economic integration and a military buildup is “to combine growing military leverage and a stronger military to maybe eventually just present Taiwan with some kind of fait accompli about accepting reunification.” Reuters also referred to a RAND Corp assessment of the growing threat of China’s short-range missiles to Taiwanese runways and its Air Force.
Furthermore, the announcement on Wednesday by Chinese state media that China will unveil a range of previously unknown missiles during its Oct. 1 National Day parade — including intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles — will surely add to the growing apprehensions surrounding China’s “peaceful” intentions. The new hardware on display, the Global Times newspaper said, will also include conventional cruise missiles and both short- and medium-range missiles, an unnamed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) source said. Missiles believed to have been developed — and deployed — by China include the Dongfeng 41, a solid-fuel ICBM with an estimated range of up to 12,000km, the report said.
“These missiles are domestically designed and manufactured and have never been officially reported before,” said the source, who reportedly works in the PLA’s strategic missile defense unit.
The fact that a PLA official would proudly state the fact that the missile program has never been officially reported is also revealing, as it comes amid growing pressure by the international community on Beijing to be more transparent about its military. In recent months, Beijing had seemed to play along and made more documents public, but this latest development highlights the fact that secrecy remains intrinsic to Beijing’s defense strategy.
The Wall Street Journal also reported on Tuesday that “Beijing is not conceding next-generation air superiority to anyone, least of all the United States,” with plans to develop “fifth-generation fighter plane equivalent to the US F-22 and F-35.” While the report rightly points out that China faces serious technical obstacles in developing advanced engines capable of 15-ton thrust levels to achieve “supersonic cruise,” it fourth-plus-generation fighters, like the J-10B, have already begun flight testing. Continued technical assistance from Russia, as well as growing domestic capabilities and industrial espionage, meanwhile, should make sure that whatever technical bottleneck China faces in developing those aircraft will be address in a matter of time.
China’s development of fourth-plus and fifth-generation aircraft will also render obsolete the fourth-generation aircraft used by Japan and the US in East Asia. It would also mean that even if Taiwan were able to obtain the more advanced F-16C/D aircraft is has long sought to purchase from the US, by the time they were delivered, they would already be insufficient to ensure air superiority in the Taiwan Strait. Analysts have often stated that the sale of F-16C/Ds to Taiwan could prompt an arms race in the Taiwan Strait; with these news, it now appears that this prompt was not necessary.
Whether it is for area denial or a Taiwan contingency, China’s continued military buildup, combined with this latest show of secrecy on Beijing’s part, should serve as a wake-up call to the Ma administration that China, not Mother Nature, remains this nation’s No. 1 enemy.