Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s president, has pledged to consult the US before firing missiles at China in any potential future conflict, in an attempt to mollify the island’s sole military ally following criticism of Mr Chen for ratcheting up tensions.
In a meeting with foreign reporters, Mr Chen on Monday defended Taiwan’s development of long-range cruise missiles, arguing that Taipei needed a counter-strike capability to discourage China from using its weapons against the island.
But he added: “We would not use them without seeking the United States’ opinion first.” Mr Chen also said Taiwan would not use such weapons against non-military targets in China.
Defence experts called Mr Chen’s pledge a political rather than practical move but said it was a reflection of the current state of relations between Washington and Taipei. “He has clearly been under a lot of pressure from the US recently,” said Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief of Defense News, a specialist publication.
US-Taiwan relations have soured in recent years, with Washington feeling Taipei was making insufficient effort to strengthen its defensive capability while the pro-independence Mr Chen and his government pushed a policy agenda that raised tensions with China.
The US has a legal commitment to help Taiwan defend itself against the military threat from China and therefore is seen as the final guarantor of the island’s security. Taiwan is developing “tactical shore-based missiles for fire suppression” capable of hitting targets on the mainland.
China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has threatened war should the island formalise its de facto independence, has close to 1,000 missiles targeting the island and is expanding this arsenal at a rate of more than 100 a year.
Washington has repeatedly called on Taiwan to concentrate on beefing up its capability to defend itself by acquiring defensive weapons from the US. However, the island’s parliament has cleared funds only for a fraction of a big arms procurement package cleared by Washington in 2001. Earlier this year Washington said offensive weapons in China or Taiwan would be destabilising.
US-Taiwan relations have soured further over Taipei’s plan to hold a referendum alongside presidential elections in March on whether the island should join the United Nations under its own name. Both China and the US have decried the plan as a step towards formal independence.
Mr Chen defended the plan. “It is not a referendum that moves towards independence but one that rejects unification,” he said.