China's Missile 'Tests' Reveal A Potential US Can't Ignore
TAIWAN DEFENSE IN DOUBT
EVEN as tensions between Beijing and Taipei ease, China's recent firing of medium-range M-9 missiles near the island is raising alarm.Skip to next paragraph
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Not only has Beijing rocked the military balance across the Taiwan Strait, but a new Asian arms race could ensue, regional analysts say.
Weeks of live-fire war games and missile exercises by China failed to cow Taiwanese voters into opposing President Lee Teng-hui, who was easily reelected March 23 with nearly 54 percent of the vote.
But more important than the political impact intended by the surface-to-surface missiles was their capability to carry nuclear warheads and their accuracy, defense analysts say.
''The exercises were directed at the United States and Japan, essentially warning them that, if this turns into war, they will have a much tougher nut to crack than they thought,'' says Paul Godwin, a military expert at the National War College in Washington.
In launching the military exercises, Beijing claimed that Mr. Lee, a native Taiwanese, favors independence for the island. China claims Taiwan is a part of the mainland and threatens to invade if the island refuses to reunify.
The president, who enraged Beijing last summer by making a private visit to the United States, denies independence leanings but insists Communist-led China will have to turn to democracy first before reunification is possible. Taiwan and China were split by a civil war that ended in 1949.
Unnerved by the accuracy of China's missile exercises, Taiwanese officials and analysts say the effectiveness of the island's defenses has been called into question. Many military observers have maintained that Taiwan's technological superiority and better trained troops could resist a larger Chinese invasion force.
As Taiwan is about to take delivery on dozens of new American and French warplanes, the island's military is no longer sure it can protect its naval and air facilities, analysts say. Taiwan is in the process of buying 150 US-made F-16 fighters and 60 French Mirage 2000 aircraft.
Last July, the China's People's Liberation Army sent six M-9 missiles crashing into the sea about 100 miles north of Taiwan. Just before last weekend's presidential election, China fired four missiles into target areas just off Keelung and Kaohsiung, Taiwan's major seaports.
More dangerous than disrupting commercial shipping is the threat to nearby Taiwanese air and naval bases, including the headquarters of Taiwan's growing antisubmarine fleet.
Asian defense experts, who previously considered Chinese missiles inaccurate, now estimate they can come within 500 yards of a target. China's pinpoint firing could also pose a threat to a huge aircraft bunker buried into a mountainside on the island, Taiwanese analysts said.
''The exercises had a big impact on the Taiwanese military. Taiwan is worried because our antimissile defenses are weak,'' says Yang Chih-heng, a military researcher at the private Institute for National Policy Research. China ''wanted to show it can shoot missiles anywhere.''
Western analysts still question the accuracy of China's M-class missiles, a variation of the Rus sian-made Scud missile used during the Gulf War, but admit it poses a heightened threat.
''If you fire enough of them, you could take out a naval facility or air force base. Open runways are now susceptible to missile attack,'' says Mr. Godwin, the American expert. ''China has been working very hard on the accuracy of its strategic weapons systems.''