Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he is not satisfied with the results of a live fire missile test that took place Tuesday. The timing of the drills, which coincided with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, is seen as a message to the United States that the island still needs help defending itself against China.
In what was the first missile test held before the press in more than a decade, six of the 19 air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles either failed to launch or missed their target. According to the Associated Press, one missile, an RIM-7M Sparrow, “cascaded harmlessly into the South China Sea less than 30 seconds after launch.”
Analysts have raised questions about the timing and publicity of the missile tests. The New York Times reports that those familiar with the situation in Taiwan considered it coincidental that the test occurred immediately before President Hu and President Obama's meeting in Washington. Government officials told the Times that the test was planned before Hu’s trip was announced.
Yet, a Taiwanese defense official told the BBC said that the tests were meant to remind the US that despite Taiwan’s growing economic ties with Beijing, it still needed defense support from Washington – and to warn China against any aggression. He said that Taiwan was developing its own advanced missiles, which would be able to reach military bases and airports on China's east coast. However, the island depends on the US for advanced weapons.
But while Taiwan is hoping the US will help Taiwan close its defense gap with China, the US needs China's help on a number of issues, including North Korea.
According to AP, President Ma has been criticized in Taiwan for prioritizing reconciliation with the mainland over national defense and for focusing funds more on disaster preparation and relief and less on defense. His attendance at the drill was seen as an "about face," according to the Times.
"I'm not satisfied with the results," Ma told reporters after the missile drills. "I hope the military will find out the reasons and improve its training."
"[The failed missiles] may be tested again during another drill to be held in the second half of this year, but no final decision has been made," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Taiwan has been independently ruled since 1949, but China continues to claim the island as part of its territory and has not renounced the use of force to achieve unification.
China’s successful test of the J-20 stealth fighter jet last week fueled fears in Taipei that China could turn its guns toward Taiwan.
“The Chinese J-20 stealth fighter is meant to be used as a first-strike force against Taiwan,” York Chen, an associate professor at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University told the Taipei Times. “Japan is not its target, nor is Guam.”
Taiwan would like the US to sell it 66 F-16 jet fighters, which it hopes might serve to deter any air threats from China. Strong Chinese opposition to the sale of weapons to Taiwan, however, has kept Washington from making any commitments to the jet sale. Hu’s trip to the US this week added to Taiwanese concerns that Beijing will prevent future arms sales.
“The Taiwan government may be using this exercise to send a message to the US that its air defense is facing mounting pressure as China continues to develop the new generation of fighter jets,” defense expert Wang Kao-cheng of Taipei's Tamkang University told the Associated Press.