The Economist



Taiwan and China

Tit for tat

30 September 2004
From the Economist Print Edition

A missile spat

IS THE war of words between China and Taiwan in danger of tipping over into something a lot nastier? Taiwan's prime minister, Yu Shyi-kun, this week abandoned the official line that the island, which China claims as its own, seeks only defensive weapons. He suggested for the first time publicly that Taiwan should consider building a missile force with the aim of establishing a "balance of terror" to fend off China's threats. "If you fire 100 missiles at me, I should be able to fire 100 missiles at you, or at least 50," he said. "If you strike Taipei and Kaohsiung, I should at least be able to strike Shanghai." China, predictably, called this a "serious provocation". Yet Taiwan has yet to deploy a single such missile, while by its count China has now pointed over 600 directly at it.

According to Bates Gill of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank, Mr Yu's blunt comments are part of a much bigger debate about how Taiwan can best defend itself. That debate in turn is part of a wider public discussion of the increasingly tricky strategic situation Taiwan faces in its efforts to fend off pressure for reunification. That pressure has intensified since the Taiwanese voted earlier this year to re-elect their independence-minded president, Chen Shui-bian.

Some on Taiwan argue that the defensive weapons America helps the island to acquire, including a controversial $18 billion arms package first offered three years ago by the Bush administration and only now under debate in Taiwan's parliament, may not be enough to keep a stable cross-strait balance. They worry that Taiwan's armed forces will need years to integrate the new equipment, which includes diesel-powered submarines, anti-submarine aircraft and Patriot anti-missile batteries (next year, America may also offer ships equipped with advanced Aegis radar systems). The China threat is nearer-term and growing. It would thus be cheaper, quicker and more effective, some argue, for Taiwan to develop missiles of its own.

America has always discouraged that, although Taiwan has tinkered about with ballistic-missile technology for years. According to the Liberty Times, a Taiwanese newspaper, the armed forces recently tested new cruise-type missiles with a range of at least 150km (90 miles). With upgraded guidance systems, and mounted on ships in the Taiwan strait, these could hit targets in some Chinese cities.

America has sought to dampen the row, calling on both sides to take no unilateral action. But whatever its missile plans, part of the Taiwan government's aim this week was to keep the spotlight on China's own missile build-up, which it points out is the real threat to the status quo. At the same time there are reports that China is considering temporarily setting aside insistence on its "one-China principle" in working out a framework to get Taiwan to the negotiating table. It doesn't necessarily expect Mr Chen to take up the offer. But that would be a way to shift the blame for the tension back on to Taiwan.