Taiwan conducted rare high-profile missile tests on Tuesday, in a reminder to the US to continue military support as Washington comes under growing pressure to reduce arms sales to Taipei.
Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president, observed tests of 19 surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles from a military base in south-east Taiwan as part of a major military exercise.
The tests came as Hu Jintao, China’s president, was set to arrive in Washington for a keenly anticipated state visit, and just a week after Beijing’s surprise test flight of its new stealth fighter.
The exercises represent the first substantial missile tests by Taiwan since cross-Strait relations began dramatically improving more than two years ago, and the first time since 2002 that it has allowed journalists to attend.
“It is a political signal, that we still exist, and we are still a factor,” said George Tsai, a veteran expert on cross-Strait ties at the Institute for International Relations at Taipei’s Chengchi University.
Mr Tsai added that remarks by Robert Gates, US defence secretary, during his China visit last week suggesting that the US might consider reducing arms sales to Taiwan if cross-Strait relations continue warming had caused considerable concern in the Taiwanese government.
The missile tests serve as a reminder of how Taiwan remains a major potential flashpoint and also a source of tension in China-US relations, although cross-Strait political relations have improved considerably since Mr Ma took office in 2008.
China claims sovereignty over independently-ruled Taiwan, and backs up its claim with the threat of military force should Taiwan formally declare independence. Under its Taiwan Relations Act, the US is obligated to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan.
As China’s missile and fighter capabilities have grown faster than Taiwan can expand its defences, Taipei has also developed offensive missiles that are seen as a cheaper, and quicker to develop option for deterring a Chinese attack.
The US has watched Taiwan’s missile programme with concern. Some military experts said the latest test was a reminder to Washington that such capabilities could have to be expanded if the US reduced arms sales to Taiwan.
Military relations between China and the US are only now resuming after Beijing suspended them over the US sale of $6.2bn of arms to Taiwan in January 2010.
After the exercises, Mr Ma said he was “not very happy” with the accuracy of the missiles, several of which failed to hit their targets. He said that the tests “had nothing to do with” Mr Hu’s US visit.
Liu Yih-jiun, a professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan, said the tests were “very much linked” to the maiden flight of China’s stealth fighter, which was a “slap in the face” for military intelligence, who had not expected it. “They need to, if not fight back, then at least put on a show of strength ... to justify their military budget,” said Mr Liu.
He added, however, that it was unlikely that the tests were planned to coincide with Mr Hu’s US visit, as Taiwan in the past “kept a low profile and waited to see what happened” during China-US summits.
Taiwan's defence ministry said the exercises were part of a regular programme designed to test the army’s capabilities as it moves from a conscription model to a smaller, professional force.