Taiwan Perilously Ponders Its Strategic Missile Force

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 20

The most alarming manifestation of China’s threat to use force to prevent or overturn de jure independence by Taiwan is the arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles the Chinese are building. China reportedly has some 800 missiles aimed at Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to add to the total, which might reach 1,800 by the end of the decade. Not only are missiles an area of particular Chinese expertise, but they are well-suited to exploit Taiwan’s vulnerabilities. Ballistic missiles fired from the Chinese coast could strike Taiwan’s main island in as little as seven minutes (CNA, December 19, 2003). At less than 130 miles wide, Taiwan provides little strategic depth and its armed forces rely heavily on a small number of key air and naval bases.

Taiwan does not yet have a reliable defense against Chinese missiles. U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles are theoretically capable of destroying both ballistic and cruise missiles, but the short time available to acquire and process targeting data on incoming missiles and the large number of missiles the Chinese could launch simultaneously at both high and low altitudes could overwhelm Taiwan’s anti-missile defenses. A more sophisticated, higher-atmosphere ballistic missile defense system is not only unproven, but also presents a poor cost-exchange ratio for the defender—expensive for the defender to build, and relatively cheap for the attacker to counter or overwhelm.

Exploring Alternatives

Taiwan has long sought an affordable means of deterring the PRC threat. An unnamed Taiwan government official lamented, “Relying on purely defensive systems to protect ourselves from China means we will have to outspend them 10 to 1…That is impossible in the long run” (Financial Times Asia Edition, September 25, 2004). Taipei had explored the possibility of a nuclear weapons capability in the 1970s and 1980s, but was met with strong opposition from the United States. The administration of President Chen Shui-bian, elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004, has shown a strong interest in another means of addressing the PRC threat: developing a capability for Taiwan to strike back with missiles of its own. In 2002, defense and political analyst Lin Cheng-yi, an adviser to Chen, publicly advocated that Taiwan deploy cruise missiles and medium range surface-to-surface missiles to counter the threat from across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s then-Premier Yu Shyi-kun further elaborated on this idea when he famously declared in 2004, “If you attack me with 100 missiles, I will at least attack you with 50. If you attack Taipei and Kaohsiung, I will attack Shanghai” (China Daily, September 29, 2004).

Although numerous reports have speculated that development of this capability is underway, Taipei has not openly acknowledged this. The 2006 version of the annual report by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense mentioned the establishment of a “special missile force.” When asked if this referred to an offensive missile capability, Defense Minister Lee Jye said, “I do not want to highlight the matter” (Taipei Times, August 30). Media reports in 2006 declared that Taiwan’s military acknowledged developing missiles that could strike PRC territory with great accuracy. Several reports had previously said that Taiwan’s military research program at the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology was developing a cruise missile adapted from the Hsiungfeng (Fierce Wind) anti-ship missile (Agence France Presse, August 30). In September, the MND said the media reports were wrong, and that the upgraded Hsiungfeng was an upgraded anti-ship missile, not a land-attack cruise missile (Central News Agency, September 5).

All of this points to the conclusion that Taipei is at a stage somewhere between serious consideration and the actual deployment of missiles that could strike mainland China. It is therefore an opportune time to think through the rationale and consequences of such a move.

A Truly Strategic Advantage?

In theory, a Taiwanese offensive missile capability might be deployed either in a countervalue strategy, targeting high-value non-military assets in China (cities or key economic infrastructure) or in a counterforce strategy, targeting the military facilities most threatening to Taiwan (such as PLA missile launch sites, air bases or harbors). Proponents of an offensive missile capability for Taiwan argue that it would decrease the chances of Beijing launching an attack against the island. Beijing would face a reduced possibility that the planned military assault would succeed because Taiwan could destroy PLA forces marshalling at their bases or hit other important military targets. Taiwan could also choose to retaliate against a PLA attack by bombarding civilian infrastructure, presenting Beijing with the political problem of an unhappy public criticizing the decision to go to war with Taiwan. Either way, the argument goes, a strategic strike capability would help Taiwan deter an attack by the PLA.

It would also be a cheaper alternative than attempting to build either a missile defense system or robust land, air and naval forces to defeat a PLA assault. Trying to match the PLA order of battle would seem to be a losing proposition for Taiwan. The island’s annual defense spending amounts to only approximately US$8.4 billion, compared to a Chinese military budget that is officially $35 billion, though likely to be two to three times higher [1]. Furthermore, while China’s economy experiences spectacular growth, Taiwan faces significant challenges to maintain its prosperity and is hesitant to pour enormous funding into its armed forces. In recent years, Taiwan has maintained a low level of defense spending (less than 2.5% of GDP) for a country facing a clear and serious security threat.

More broadly, a capability to strike the Chinese mainland could give Taiwan more influence over a cross-Strait crisis than it now has. Specifically, Taiwan could choose—independent of the United States—to escalate a crisis in a situation where Taipei believed that this was in its own interest to do so.

Deploying a strategic missile capability against China would obviously displease Beijing. Taiwan, of course, could justify this act under the principle of self-defense. Some in Taiwan contend that it is sheer hypocrisy for the international community to accept China’s strategic missiles while frowning on any effort by Taiwan to counter this threat with its own strategic missile capability. Advocates of missiles for Taiwan further argue that Taipei gains little or nothing by exercising restraint and unilaterally foregoing an opportunity to strengthen its own capabilities, particularly when Beijing has committed itself to confronting Taiwan with a superior military force, a large battery of missiles and a standing threat to attack if the island moves toward formal independence.

The Underlying Dangers

Despite these points in its favor, a policy of deploying strategic missiles would be fraught with such risks that on balance, would not clearly add to the security of Taiwan.

Should it decide to employ military force against Taiwan, Beijing possesses a broad range of options that Taiwan has an interest in discouraging, especially those that involve direct attacks on the main island. Yet rather than inducing caution in Beijing, the mere existence of an offensive missile capability in Taiwan might lead the PLA to resort sooner to more aggressive tactics. The prospect of an arsenal of land-attack missiles might prod China to launch a preventive strike in order to keep Taiwan’s missiles from becoming operational. They might even clinch a decision by Beijing to move militarily against Taiwan rather than continue its current “wait-and-see” policy. Alternatively, the threat of a missile attack from Taiwan might persuade the Chinese to employ an electro-magnetic pulse weapon, with its potential for disastrous collateral damage to Taiwan’s economy and infrastructure. At a very minimum, China could be expected to make adjustments to minimize any potential advantage that an offensive missile capability might offer to Taiwan—hardening the most important and likely targets, seeking ways to disrupt the missiles’ guidance systems and adding Taiwan’s missile batteries to the list of targets for a PLA missile barrage.

An independent capability to strike the mainland would indeed give Taiwan more defense autonomy. This very autonomy, however, might work against a close U.S.-Taiwan relationship by negating Washington’s power to keep a Taiwan Strait crisis from escalating, possibly toward a U.S.-China military conflict that neither Washington nor Beijing wants. Washington presumably would not welcome an arrangement that requires the United States to accept considerable risks while reducing its influence over the progression of events. Risking a weakening of the commitment from its strongest ally in order to acquire an offensive missile capability is a poor tradeoff for Taiwan.

China’s decision to attack Taiwan would not be a strictly military decision, but rather include political considerations as well. If the decision rested merely on an evaluation of the likelihood that the PLA’s plan for subduing Taiwan would succeed, Taiwan might deter an attack by raising Beijing’s costs and complicating its plans; adding a strategic strike capability might accomplish this. The prospect of suffering damage to Chinese territory from Taiwanese missiles, however, is not sufficient to deter Beijing. The real issue for China is regime security: the leadership in Beijing must avoid the perception that they are acquiescing to the Taiwanese “separatists.” Indeed, a far greater danger to the Chinese policymakers would be the domestic judgment that they backed down before the “separatists” in Taiwan out of fear of its missiles. Such a perception, the leaders believe, would significantly weaken their legitimacy and perhaps even lead to popular calls for their resignation. Accordingly, Taiwan’s best means of deterring a PLA attack are political rather than military. With Beijing’s apparent willingness to indefinitely accept the status quo of a de facto (but not de jure) independent Taiwan and to concentrate on economic development, avoiding a military cross-Strait conflict is eminently feasible.

An offensive missile capability is more likely to hurt than help Taiwan. While failing to deter Beijing, it might well manage to bring greater destruction to “Ilha Formosa” (the Beautiful Island). In reaction to speculation that Taiwan might strike sites in China such as Shanghai (where, incidentally, some half a million Taiwan nationals live) or the Three Gorges Dam during a crisis, Beijing accused Taipei of “terrorism.” PLA General Liu Yuan promised that in such a situation, Chinese retaliation against Taiwan “would blot out the sky and cover the earth” (China Daily, June 17, 2004).

Despite the theoretical appeal and morale-boosting effect of the notion of a strategic missile capability, Taiwan might be wiser to devote its scarce defense resources toward less spectacular but highly underrated tasks such as enhancing the survivability of its physical and electronic military infrastructure, dispersing important military assets, conducting additional joint-service training and topping-up stocks of munitions.


1. RAND has estimated that Chinese military spending levels are 40% to 70% higher than official government figures: https://www.rand.org/publications/MG/MG260-1/index.html. The United States Department of Defense has estimated that Chinese military spending amounts to between $70 billion to $105 billion: https://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/China%20Report%202006.pdf.