China Power

What’s in a Missile Test?

China looks to have tested ASBM technology. If so, it has big implications for Taiwan.

Andrew Erickson writing for Wired raises an interesting issue based on testimony by US Adm. Robert Willard that China has been developing and testing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).

The implications of this for the Asia-Pacific are clear. China might be at a significant overall military disadvantage to the United States, but effective anti-ship missiles would give it a relatively inexpensive way of making the US Navy think twice before, for example, steaming into the Taiwan Strait like it did in 1995 and 1996 in a show of force following Chinese missile tests.

Writing on the possible development of ASBMs, Erickson says:

If they can be deployed successfully, Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles would be the first capable of targeting a moving aircraft-carrier strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. And if not countered properly, this and other “asymmetric” systems — ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, torpedoes and sea mines — could potentially threaten U.S. operations in the western Pacific, as well as in the Persian Gulf.

Of course, to take up a point I’ve made a number of times here, it’s important not to apply a double standard, just because it’s China. China is, after all, a rising power, and as such it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s developing such systems—indeed, it would be more surprising if it weren’t.

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But such developments still have consequences, not least for Taiwan. I asked Taiwan-based analyst J. Michael Cole for his take on what all this means for the island. He told me:

‘There’s no doubt that Taiwan’s defence apparatus has lost its edge over China, especially since the Ma administration has advocated a more “peaceful” approach toward the PRC by being less “provocative” and holding fewer—and smaller—military exercises simulating a Chinese invasion. The Taiwanese military is therefore less prepared, at a time when the PLA is becoming stronger. This shows us that while Ma and his advisers may believe in the benefits of their policy of détente vis-à-vis China, Beijing wants to keep all its options open and to be ready if the necessary option turns out to be force.

Of course, Beijing and security experts have made the case that the modernization of the PLA is not solely aimed at Taiwan, and to a certain extent that’s true. SLBMs, for example, or the SA-20 PMU-2 missile defence system it has purchased from Russia to defend key areas like cities and the Three Gorges Dam, have applications that go beyond a Taiwan contingency. But the problem, from Taiwan’s perspective, is that all those systems also have applications in a Taiwan contingency.

Cole told me he also believes China’s military expansion could in part be aimed at sending a political signal to Washington, saying he thinks it no coincidence that China successfully tested a missile defence system just as the US was about to announce its $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan.

‘This growth could also be used as a means to signal that the cost to US intervention in a Taiwan scenario would be such that Washington should think twice about coming to Taiwan’s assistance,’ he said. ‘In other words, with each addition to its offensive system (and provided the US does not increase its own forces in the region), the cost-benefit analysts for decision-makers in Washington regarding the entry into a conflict in the Taiwan Strait becomes increasingly in favour of non-intervention.’