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The deployment of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile comes as China’s army develops greater long-range and offensive capabilities. Those advances pose a challenge to US forces as Washington looks to build up its military presence in east Asia to balance out China’s rising might.
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The DF-21D missile is a particular worry for Taiwan as it relies on US forces to back it up against threats from the mainland, which has not renounced the use of force to take the island it regards as part of its territory.
The missile limits the US’s ability to send aircraft carriers into the strait unchallenged to support Taipei, as it did in 1996 when China conducted missile tests in the strait during the run-up to the island’s first democratic election. Taiwan itself has no aircraft carriers.
News of the missile’s deployment came in written testimony to the head of intelligence for the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, delivered to a Senate committee on Thursday.
Chinese and US military sources have been saying since late 2010 that China has been planning to deploy the missile, but the testimony marks the first time a concrete deployment has been revealed in connection with a particular location. US military officials have said previously that the US lacks a tested way to defend its aircraft carriers against the missile.
That increases the pressure on Taiwan to strengthen its own ability to deter threats from the mainland and illustrates how, despite a reduction in tensions engineered by Taiwan’s president, China’s military continues to prepare for the possibility of conflict.
Taiwan’s military declined to comment specifically on the new missile, but its spokesman Luo Shou-he said the military “has continually strengthened the ability of self-defence to ensure the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.”
China’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this week, Taiwan’s military conducted its first big live-fire military exercise since President Ma Ying-jeou’s election in 2008. The president has stabilised the cross-strait relationship by working with Beijing to increase bilateral trade but has been criticised for paying less attention to defence.
Mr Ma said after the drill that Taiwan must focus on “how our military force can effectively intimidate the potential threat” rather than focus on “whether other countries will be there as our military aid.”
While the US and Taiwan lack a formal defence treaty that would require intervention, it is widely assumed that such help would be forthcoming. The US is required by its domestic law to help Taiwan defend itself, and it maintains a network of military advisers on the island.
Few think China is likely to attack or pressure Taiwan now, but analysts say Beijing is wary of the opposition Democratic Progressive party, which historically supports formal independence for Taiwan, returning to power in 2016 presidential elections.
“This is [China’s] so-called double-handed strategy,” said one officer in Taiwan’s navy. “China maintains an improvement in the relationship across the strait . . . on the other hand it is still sending a very strong message to pro-independence personnel: ‘Don’t do anything stupid, I still have very strong capabilities’.”