Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 25

China’s recent proposal to exchange its missiles deployed against Taiwan for reduced U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is an unsuccessful attempt at diplomatic linkage that will actually end up drawing increased scrutiny to China’s own ongoing military and missile buildup, as well as its unwillingness to renounce the use of force against Taiwan.

The proposal, which Jiang Zemin reportedly made to George W. Bush in Crawford in October, would seem from press accounts to have been an informal one. But it was brought up again in November during meetings between Vice Premier Qian Qichen and Defense Minister Chi Haotian and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry in Beijing. A senior Chinese official is quoted as describing it as “well thought through.”

So far Jiang’s offer has failed to change U.S. policy. Citing a “Bush administration official” about Bush’s response, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz wrote, “The president dismissed the offer.” [1] In addition, Taiwan’s representative to the United States Chen Chien-jen was reported to have been told by U.S. officials that “the U.S. government would not be so naive as to accept Jiang’s proposal.” [2] Even a Washington Post report from Beijing intended to stress the positive aspects of Jiang’s offer noted that the response of “Bush administration officials” suggested the proposal was a “nonstarter.” [3]

Furthermore, in recent meetings with senior Chinese counterparts, U.S. officials have continued to call attention to the issue of China’s missiles aimed at Taiwan. Douglas Feith, Defense Department undersecretary for policy, said that the Jiang proposal did not come up at the U.S.-China Defense Consultative Talks in Washington on December 9, but that “the topic of China’s missile buildup across from Taiwan did.” This build-up, he said, does “not contribute to the stability of the area [and]… is threatening and appears to be designed to… coerce and intimidate.” [4] The next day, in a meeting at the White House, U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice reportedly told Chinese Lieutenant General Xiong Guankai that “there is no justification for the continued buildup of Chinese missiles along the Taiwan Strait.” [5]

The proposal may have originated as an attempt to divert attention from Taiwan’s efforts to highlight the Chinese missile threat by trying to shift the subject away from what China is doing and onto American military assistance to Taiwan.

In early September the European Parliament had passed a resolution urging Beijing to stand down its missile force opposite Taiwan. In taking this action, the Europeans may have been recalling their own experience with similar intimidating missile threats during the Cold War period, in particular the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in the late 1970s.

A week later, in an address marking the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in America, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian had pointed out that China currently has 400 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) deployed against Taiwan (192 in Jiangxi and 208 in Fujian). It is adding to this force at the rate of fifty new missiles a year. Chen further commented that “the threat of these missiles and the fear they provoke among the Taiwanese people have already surpassed the dread of a terrorist attack.”

A month later, in his October 10 National Day Message, Chen had called on China “to immediately remove the 400 missiles deployed along the Taiwan Strait and openly renounce the use of force against Taiwan.” A Foreign Ministry statement had repeated this call several days later, [6] and the Legislative Yuan a week after that. [7]

All indicators point to a continued military buildup by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As the U.S. Department of Defense commented in its July 2002 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China: “The PLA’s offensive capabilities improve as each year passes, providing Beijing with an increasing number of credible options to intimidate or actually attack Taiwan.”

It was only a few short years ago that we witnessed how China was willing to use its missile force to intimidate Taiwan in an unprecedented manner. Ten missiles were launched very near Taiwan during two separate sets of military exercises in 1995-96. Called tests, they were in fact responses to what Beijing viewed as unacceptable political developments in Taiwan. [8]

The first set occurred in July 1995, triggered by then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States. Six nuclear-capable DF-15 (M-9) SRBMs were fired into an ocean impact zone about 90 miles north of Taiwan. Eight months later, in March 1996, another four DF-15s were launched in the run-up to Taiwan’s presidential election. These missiles were targeted at aim points both north and south of the island and were one element of a larger exercise (Exercise Strait 961) designed to simulate the invasion of Taiwan. Three were launched into an area just off the northern port of Chilung. Several years later the Washington Post reported that “what no one disclosed at the time was that one of the missiles passed almost directly over” Taipei before landing 19 miles off the coast. [9] The fourth was fired into an area about 30 nautical miles off Kaohsiung.

Since then, China has increased the size of missile deployments opposite Taiwan and continued to improve the accuracy of its missile force. It increasingly has the capability to strike key leadership, military and economic infrastructure targets in Taiwan with little warning (measured in minutes), placing multiple missiles on each potential target to help assure target destruction. Many of these missiles carry conventional warheads so Beijing can achieve its military aims without crossing the nuclear threshold. The ever-increasing size of China’s missile force also helps assure target penetration in the face of the limited missile defense capabilities that Taiwan currently deploys.

More attention needs to be focused on China’s ongoing military build-up, which–specifically the missile component–is shrouded in secrecy, giving Beijing a free hand to acquire the offensive tools for intimidation, coercion and a potential preemptive strike. This build-up and offensive posturing, highlighted by its missile deployments, are responsible for creating tensions across the Taiwan Strait and increasing instability in East Asia. Any use of these missiles in a future conflict would have a devastating impact on Taiwan and would cause substantial political and economic turmoil throughout the region.

In light of this threat, Taiwan will need to acquire defensive capabilities that help maintain the military balance with China. If China is indeed serious about holding out its missile force as a bargaining chip it should only be explored in the context of an overall political solution with Taiwan. By eliminating its missiles in a transparent and verifiable manner and renouncing the use of force, China could help point relations between the two sides in a positive direction for the future.

1. Bill Gertz, “Inside The Ring,” The Washington Times, December 6, 2002

2. “Top Envoy Says China Willing to Disarm, Proposal hinges on U.S. reduction of military assistance,” Taiwan News, November 22, 2002

3. John Pomfret, “China Suggests Missile Buildup Linked to Arms Sales to Taiwan,” The Washington Post, December 10, 2002

4. News Transcript, “Under Secretary Feith Media Roundtable On U.S. China Defense Consultative Talks,” December 9, 2002 at:

5. Quoted in Bill Gertz, “Chinese General Told Threat Against U.S. Unacceptable,” Washington Times, December 11, 2002

6. “A Statement Calling Upon the People’s Republic of China
To Withdraw the Ballistic Missiles Deployed Along the Taiwan Straits
And Gradually Remove Military Forces from the Area,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan), October 14, 2002 at:

7. Taipei Times, “Legislature calls on China to remove missiles,” October 23, 2002

8. For background see, Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China’s Missiles Over the Taiwan Strait: A Political and Military Assessment,” in James R. Lilley and Chuck Downs, eds., Crisis in the Taiwan Strait (Washington, DC: National Defense University in cooperation with American Enterprise Institute, 1997), pp. 167-214. Also see U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, Chinese Exercise Strait 961: 8-25 March 1996, May 1996

9. Barton Gellman, “U.S. and China Nearly Came to Blows in 1996,” Washington Post, June 21, 1998

David G. Wiencek is president of International Security Group, Inc.