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Theater Missile Defense in Taiwan

Enhancing independence from mainland China or jeopardizing the national security of Taiwan?

Essay 2008 11 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: Ferner Osten


Table of Contents


1. Mainland China-Taiwan Relations

2. National security of Taiwan

3. Why China cannot let go

4. The strategic ambiguity of the USA

5. Theater Missile Defense in Taiwan




The current debate on missile defense primarily focuses on Washington’s plans to install missile shield facilities in Poland and Czech Republic. The development of this conflict certainly deserves our attention because of fierce Russian objections to a Theatre Missile Defense System (TMD) in Eastern Europe and the yet to be stated position by US president-elect Barack Obama on this issue. At the same time, Western media largely ignores the implications of the ongoing missile buildup in East Asia. Particularly, the Taiwan Strait as “probably the most dangerous flashpoint in the entire world” (Wu 2001) has to be of central interest when discussing the dynamics of missile defense.

Taiwan was preparing to deal with a ‘communist invasion’ when, in 1995 and 1996, China conducted several intense military exercises along its Taiwan Strait coastline, including missile tests near two important Taiwanese seaports. The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996 ultimately triggered demands for a more sophisticated theatre missile defense to intercept ballistic missiles from mainland China (Aßmann 2006, p. 262). The Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan heavily relies on American technology to strengthen its defense ties with Washington and considers an anti-ballistic missile shield to be an adequate way to deter the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from an invasion to reunify the two Chinas.

This article discusses the regional and global implications of a Taiwanese TMD system. While the Taiwan Strait crisis explains why a TMD system has become important for Taiwan, the more troubling question is whether it is actually beneficial for Taiwan’s national security and if it could enhance Taiwanese independence. Pursuing a TMD system for actual defense or deterrence purposes seems plausible. However, this notion oversimplifies the situation in the Taiwan Strait and neglects alliance issues, the societal threat perception as well as the unique question of Taiwanese independence. In order to reduce the complexity of the implications of a Taiwanese anti-ballistic missile shield, each of these three points is discussed with respect to the political dimensions of missile defense. Beginning with China, the dynamics of a TMD system become apparent since Taiwan’s missile defense is not only a reaction to missile deployment from the opposite coast, but also induces Chinese research programs on missile techniques and furthermore, missile deployment (Spencer 2000, Appendix D). However, the behavior of the PRC can only be fully understood by referring to the interests of the U.S. in the Taiwan Strait. While Washington is somewhat committed to protecting Taiwan as “the most democratic society in Chinese history” (van Vranken Hickey 1997, p. 197), it has also a strong interest in solid Sino-U.S. relations. Therefore, U.S. support for a Taiwanese TMD system has to be analyzed in terms of this strategic ambiguity. Additionally, the role of missile defense is discussed with respect to the Taiwanese threat perception as well as its actual military merit. Finally, this article reaches at a conclusion about whether a TMD system can enhance Taiwanese de jure independence or whether pursuing a TMD system triggers a regional or even global conflict because of the “intermezzo of differing strategic interests the of PRC, ROC and U.S.” (Aßmann 2006), p. 251).

1. Mainland China-Taiwan Relations

First insights to the Mainland China-Taiwan relations can be gained by looking at a survey published in Political Science and Politics (Zhong & Shen 2008, pp. 359-365). Numerous China scholars in the U.S. were interviewed about their views on U.S.-China Relations and China’s status in the next 30 years.

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Although the survey made no reference to a TMD system, it is interesting to see that almost 40 % of the interviewees predict a peaceful unification and half of the scholars think that that the current status quo will continue through the next 30 years. Both formal independence from mainland China and a military conflict are implausible by over 90 %. Yet, about one fourth find that it is “hard to say” anything about the future of mainland China-Taiwan relations in the next 30 years. This relatively high level of uncertainty among scholars makes a discussion of the implications of a TMD system even more relevant, especially if missile defense affects the current status quo and a peaceful unification. Moreover, Dennis Van Vranken Hickey (1997, p. 187) assumes that “ironically, it would appear that one of the greatest threats to Taiwan’s security in the post Cold War world is Taiwan itself”. Does this also hold for a Taiwan equipped with a TMD system?

2. National security of Taiwan

Despite Taiwan’s ambiguous international status between renegade province of the PRC and official recognition by only 23 small countries in Central America, Africa, the Caribbean, Oceana as well Paraguay and Holy See, Taiwan’s security equation is described as “crystal clear” (Shambaugh 1996, p. 1284). Since 1949, Taiwan has been constantly facing the threat of a military attack or another measure of coercive diplomacy from the PRC. Back then, the communists under Mao Zedong defeated the Chinese nationalists lead by Chiang Kei-shek, who fled to the island of Taiwan. Although at the time, it seemed likely that the newly founded People’s Republic of China would soon include Taiwan, the U.S. became the military protector of the Republic of China on Taiwan. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 changed U.S. foreign policy which was now focusing on actively mobilizing against communism. Therefore, protecting Taiwan from ‘Red China’ became a vital part of the American policy on containment (Schubert 2007, p. 204). Nevertheless, the PRC continued to regard Taiwan as an integral part of the Chinese motherland. Thus, any move towards de jure independence by Taipei has provoked a coercive threat or even a military attack by Beijing (White III, 2004, p. 302).

3. Why China cannot let go

“The focal point of Chinese diplomatic and defense concerns is Taiwan” (Roberts 2001, p. 195). The PRC pursues the national goal of reunification with Taiwan in order to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity. According to this ‘one China’ principle Taiwan is regarded as an inseparable part of China (Qimao 1996, p. 1066). Before illustrating China’s determination to decisively use force in order to prevent Taiwan from becoming independent, the rationale of the ‘one China’ principle deserves more attention.

Upholding the ‘one China’ principle is crucial for the political survival of the Chinese government as Taiwanese de jure independence not only challenges the deterrent image and the prestige of Beijing, but may strengthen the independence movements in other renegade provinces such as Tibet, Xingjiang, Hebei, Inner Mongolia or China’s South East. Consequently, an independent Taiwan causing a domino effect of separatism is a severe threat to the legitimacy of the PRC (Aßmann 2006, p. 252).

How China strategically navigates between waiting to achieve reunification and preventing de jure independence of Taiwan can be understood by referring to the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. The events marked the “dramatic escalation in the confrontation” (Scobell 2000, p. 227) between the PRC and the ROC. An unofficial visit of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to Cornell University in the U.S. in 1995, as well as, the ongoing presidential elections in 1996 fundamentally triggered the crisis. China regarded President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Taiwan’s closest ally as an attempt to strive for greater international recognition. Moreover, Beijing’s concerns were a result of the possibility that the former pro-independence President would once again run for office (Scobell 2000, p. 227). Consequently, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted large-scale military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and nuclear capable DF-15 missiles were fired in July 1995 and in March 1996 prior to the presidential elections. The missiles of the latter tests were targeted only 30 miles off the Taiwanese harbors of Kaohsiung and Keelung (Spencer 2000, p. A3). Ultimately, the U.S. deployed two air craft carriers in the region to ease the tensions, but the PRC had actually not intended to wage a full scale attack. Instead, China had aimed at intimidating Taiwan and demonstrating its resolve to fully unite Taiwan with China “with or without U.S. intervention” (Scobell 2000, p. 232).

The crisis revealed the military vulnerability of Taiwan and triggered Taiwanese, as well as, U.S. demands for a more sophisticated TMD system on the island (Ross 2002, p. 48). The crisis also demonstrates the dynamics of ballistic missiles and missile defense respectively. The Chinese missile tests not only underlined the high degree of bellicosity of the PRC but also demonstrated that ballistic missiles were the “modus operandi of coercion” (Aßmann 2006, p. 257) or “preferred choice of tactics for a PLA attack on Taiwan” (Scobell 2000, p. 245). Two assertions can be made here: Firstly, as long as any Taiwanese government preserves de facto independence and does not openly aspire for de jure independence, an attack from the PRC is unlikely. Secondly, the events in 1996 have nevertheless shown that China is able to “traumatize Taiwan with missile attacks” (Van Vranken Hickey 1997, p. 186). Roberts (2001, p. 187) even asserted that Chinese short-range missiles are “capable of striking targets in Taiwan and the strait, potentially overwhelming even a stout theater missile defense”. As a result, demands for a TMD system gained momentum in Taiwan, which again required a subsequent reaction from the PRC – i.e. the continuous buildup of missiles on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait, in the Fujian province. Additionally, Beijing is also concerned about the political implications of a Taiwanese TMD. The independence movement in Taiwan is expected to gain momentum as TMD deepens the military cooperation with the U.S. and signals an improved protection from the Chinese missile threats (Roberts 2001, p. 196).

In summation, two bottom lines can be identified. Firstly, increased pressure from China gives impetus in Taiwan to pursue a stronger TMD or, with respect to the political implications, “bullying Taiwan only fuels the island’s separatist movement” (Van Vranken Hickey 1997, p. 197). Secondly, the behavior of the U.S. is crucial for the security in the Taiwan Strait. The close ties to Taiwan not only enable the U.S. to influence Taiwan’s cross strait politics, but U.S. arms sales and the degree of support for a TMD system affect the prospects of a military confrontation (McClaren 2000, p. 639). How strong is the commitment of the U.S. to actually defend Taiwan? In 1995, PLA General Xiong Guangkai challenged the U.S. government by stating that “in the end you care more about Los Angeles than Taipei” (Gertz 1998, p. A1).

4. The strategic ambiguity of the USA

The previous statement from the PLA General can very well be contrasted by an assertion of the current U.S. administration. In 2001, President George W. Bush openly declared that the U.S. would do “whatever it takes to defend Taiwan from any Chinese attack” (quoted by Aßmann 2006, p. 265). While this account certainly underlines the importance of the alliance between Taiwan and the U.S., the actual relations seem to be far more complex. They are based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, which is a domestic law allowing the U.S president to help defend Taiwan (White III, 2004, p. 305).[1] In other words, it is not considered an obligation to defend Taiwan, but as an option to do so (Van Vranken Hickey 1997, p. 184). While Beijing regards the TRA as a major obstacle to reunification under ‘one China’ and to unconstrained relations with Washington, the TRA allows for normal but unofficial U.S. relations with Taiwan including arms sales to meet Taipei’s self-defense requirements (McClaren 2000, p. 623).

The TRA already indicates the strategic ambiguity of the U.S. and subsequent challenges can be derived from it. To begin with, the U.S. need to be able to deter China from using force against Taiwan. Doing this ensures Taiwan’s security, democracy and prosperity. However, the U.S. recognizes the ‘one China’ principle and does not to fully contest the Chinese security interest in this area since this would challenge U.S. relations with the PRC (Ross 2002, p. 84). In other words, the commitment to defend Taiwan is not to encourage the Taiwanese people to move toward de jure independence. Taipei does not possess a carte blanche from Washington (Niou 2004, p. 566). The basic question is how U.S. support for a Taiwanese missile defense program would affect these challenges. In 1996, Chen Qimao (p. 1066) warned that including Taiwan into the planned American TMD system “would certainly destroy Sino-American relations”. What is actually happening is that the strategic ambiguity of the U.S. is also reflected in their commitment to a Taiwanese TMD. While Washington has delivered 6 PAC-3 (PATRIOT) units as elements of lower tier systems, they are more hesitant in providing Taiwan with more sophisticated TMD components such as the Aegis platform, which provides for a sea-based TMD system of lower and upper tier systems (Aßmann 2006, p. 265). At least this halfhearted support for TMD is politically desired by Taipei and somehow politically feasible for Washington, although it contains some unnecessary security risks.


[1] The TRA can be regarded as a substitute to official diplomatic recognitions. The profound diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the U.S. began to decline because of events basically detached from Taiwan – the split between the PRC and the Soviet Union as well as the U.S. defeats in Vietnam. U.S. President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 underlined the newly structured American interests and prepared ground for diplomatic relations with the PRC (1979). The subsequent U.S. de-recognition of Taiwan, which ceased to be a UN member in 1971, resulted in the TRA in 1979.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
454 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster – Institut für Politikwissenschaft
Theater Missile Defense Taiwan Enhancing China




Titel: Theater Missile Defense in Taiwan