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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 15:04 GMT
Military balance goes against Taiwan

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

Whoever wins Taiwan's election on 20 March, their foremost concern will be the growing military threat from China.

The batteries of Chinese missiles directly targeted at the island are already the topic of a referendum coinciding with the presidential poll.

Taiwan missile
Taiwan's military is losing its technological advantage
Voters are being asked whether Taiwan should strengthen its defences if China refuses to redeploy its missiles.

That vote may just be a ruse by President Chen Shui-bian to help him win the election, but the build-up of missiles is real.

And there is little doubt, say analysts, that China is winning its long-term battle to gain military superiority.

Spending hike

The rise in defence spending of almost 12% announced at the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress (NPC) last week was the latest in a long line of similar hefty increases.

If things don't go the way China wants in Taiwan's internal politics, it will use these weapons
Andrew Yang, Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, Taipei
While China may be seen by many as the next global superpower, the immediate focus of its rapid development of its military power continues to be the small island it regards as a no more than a breakaway province.

"The consensus at the NPC was for China to enhance the production of missiles because of the current tense situation in Taiwan," said Andrew Yang, a political scientist in Taipei who specialises in military aspects of cross-straits relations.

The People's Liberation Army (even at its reduced standing of 2.5 million, still the largest fighting force in the world) has always dwarfed Taiwan's military (currently numbered at 385,000), but it has lagged behind in terms of sophisticated weaponry.

But things are changing fast.

In its annual report to the US Congress in July last year, the Pentagon said China had 450 short-range ballistic missiles - considerably more than was previously thought - and was expected to deploy 75 additional missiles a year for some years to come.

All of them are based in the Nanjing military region opposite Taiwan.

China continues to refuse to renounce the use of force and its belligerent threats over what it sees as President Chen's moves towards independence are more than just empty talk, say analysts.


"If things don't go the way China wants in Taiwan's internal politics, it will use these weapons", said Professor Yang.

Its most likely method of attack, he believes, would be to mount a blockade of Taiwan and starve it economically, but he says air strikes are also a realistic option and he does not rule out a full-scale invasion.

Taiwan's submarines are old-fashioned... China's are state-of-the-art
Lee Ngoc, Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Beijing has spent billions of dollars in recent years to boost its attack force with Russian SU-27 and SU-30 fighter aircraft, four Kilo-class submarines and Sovremenny-class destroyers.

Its preferred option, however, has been to buy the Russian technology and produce the weapons systems itself.

It has built a number of destroyers and has accelerated its production of submarines.

"Taiwan's submarines are old-fashioned, whereas China's are now state-of-the-art," according to Lee Ngoc, a specialist on Chinese defence issues at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University.

The military balance is now firmly tipped in Beijing's favour, he said.

Although Taiwan has modern Mirage and F16 fighters, its force of US-built PAC-2 interceptors may not be enough to protect it against China's large missile force, he said.

The issue is shifting from one of deterrence and balance to one of confidence-building and tension reduction
David Shambaugh, George Washington University
Taiwan's current missile defence strategy is now obsolete, according to Richard Fisher of the Centre for Security Policy, a US think-tank.

The purchase from the US of the more advanced PAC-3 missile is Taiwan' only active option, he told a seminar in Taipei this week.

Taiwan's military is also under US pressure to add new radar and signals interception technology to give earlier warning of an attack.

Taiwan has promised Washington it will upgrade its defence and has begun to allocate special budgets to procure the latest US systems.

But political considerations and budgetary restraints have made progress slow.

US intervention

President Chen has said he would cut the size of the island's armed forces by 30% if he was re-elected. There have already been numerical cuts in the past year in both the navy and the air force.

Many Taiwanese believe that being weak increases the chances of the United States coming to their aid in the event of an attack by China, but nobody can be sure that the US really would intervene.

At the same time, while the Americans are keen to sell more weapons to Taiwan, it is unclear if they will allow access to their most advanced systems - such as an Aegis-mounted naval missile system - even if the island were to come up with the collective political will and money to buy them.

With the cross-straits military balance falling more and more out of balance, and in China's favour, it seems Taiwan may find itself coming under more pressure to pursue a more conciliatory policy towards Beijing.

In addition to its 500 or so deployed missiles, its fighter planes and its submarines, China has made key advances in other areas such as information and electronic warfare and special operations, according to Professor David Shambaugh, China specialist at George Washington University and author of Modernizing China's Military.

"The issue is shifting, therefore, from one of deterrence and balance to one of confidence-building and tension reduction," he said.

"The question is whether the Taiwan government, after the elections, will be inclined to move in this direction."


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