Taiwan's unusually public missile test fizzles
January 21, 2011
If Taiwan's unusually public test-firing of 19 missiles Tuesday was intended as a statement following China's successful trial of a new stealth aircraft, the message came out a bit garbled.
Taiwan's president was on hand as almost a third of the missiles missed their targets, raising questions rather than reassuring the public about the self-ruled island's readiness to defend itself against an attack from the mainland.
President Ma Ying-jeou's attendance at the drills at a base in Taiwan's south was ostensibly to underscore his commitment to an effective Taiwanese deterrent, following criticism that the island's defense has been undermined by his policy of reconciling with the mainland.
However, one analyst suggested the public display was aimed at persuading Washington to sell more advanced military jets to Taiwan, whose U.S.-equipped air force long maintained an advantage over China's, but has recently been eclipsed.
Mainland China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing still claims the island as its territory and has reserved the right to invade the democratic island of 23 million people if it moves to make its de facto independence permanent — something Ma opposes.
Following China's well-publicized test of the J-20 last week, the normally pro-government United Daily News questioned Ma's policy of shifting the military's main mission away from national defense and toward disaster relief, commenting that "the more important mission for the military is to defend against threats."
The shift in military priorities, unveiled after a devastating typhoon in August 2009, reflects Ma's belief that his continuing efforts to lower tensions with China — the main theme of his 2 1/2-year-old administration — make war across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait less likely than ever before.
Defense expert Wang Kao-cheng of Taipei's Tamkang University said one purpose of Tuesday's missile test may have been to persuade the U.S. to sell Taiwan the 66 relatively advanced F-16 jet fighters that top its military wish list.
Washington is considering the request, but bitter Chinese opposition to the deal has delayed its implementation for more than two years.
"The Taiwan government may be using this exercise to send a message to the U.S. that its air defense is facing mounting pressure as China continues to develop the new generation of fighter jets," Wang said.
Taiwanese military commentators say the main function of the missiles tested Tuesday is to deter Chinese aircraft from entering the island's self-proclaimed defense zone on its side of an imaginary line that runs through the strait that separates Taiwan from the mainland.
The missiles bolster the island's aging air force, which American analysts say is becoming increasingly ill-prepared to meet the challenges of China's continuing military buildup.