South China Sea: Taiwan fires up missile tests to coincide with Beijing’s month of military drills

Lawrence Chung
·4-min read

Taiwan will stage six rounds of missile tests this month along with other military drills to step up its defence capabilities, as the People’s Liberation Army conducts a month-long exercise in the South China Sea.

From Wednesday, the government-funded National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology plans to test-fire missiles off the eastern and southern coasts, with five more rounds planned between March 10 and March 19, according to a notice made public by the Taiwan Fisheries Agency.

It said they would test the power of missiles launched from the Jiupeng military base in the island’s southernmost county of Pingtung and the eastern county of Taitung.

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The notice also said there was “no ceiling” on the height of the missile tests on March 10-11 and March 18-19, meaning they will stretch 300km into the Pacific, encompassing the waters off the counties of Hualien and Taitung, including Orchid Island.

There was no mention of which missiles would be tested, but the semi-official Central News Agency quoted an unnamed retired institute official as saying they would likely be Hsiung Feng-2E (Brave Wind-2E) cruise missiles and the extended-range version of the Thunderbolt-2000 tactical missiles.

The Hsiung Feng-2E has a firing range of 600km, capable of reaching China, while the extended version of the Thunderbolt-2000 is said to have a firing range of 200-300km, meaning it could reach the mainland coast.

Meanwhile, the Taiwanese air force will conduct at least five rounds of live-fire drills between Wednesday and March 25 at waters near Chialutang in southwestern Taiwan. The drills will be near the island’s southwest air defence identification zone (ADIZ) that PLA warplanes have reportedly frequently flown into and been seen off by the Taiwanese air force.

Taiwan’s navy will also stage two exercises on March 8 and 11 near Chialutang to improve combat readiness, according to another notice published by the fisheries agency.

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The Taiwanese coastguard will also hold a live-fire drill at the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on March 23, after it staged a live-fire exercise on Monday at the Pratas Islands – controlled by Taiwan and claimed by Beijing – amid rising tensions in the region, according to the agency.

Taiwan’s drills come as the PLA conducts a month-long exercise, which started on Monday, in a zone with a radius of 5km (3.1 miles) west of the Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong province.

Analysts said although Taiwan’s missile tests and military drills would have been scheduled well ahead of time, publicising the schedule also served as a warning to Beijing over its growing military intimidation against the self-ruled island.

“In the face of continuous threats from China, the flurry of missile tests and military drills by the Taiwanese forces are meant to tell Beijing that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself,” said Su Tzu-yun, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a government-funded think tank.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be brought under mainland control, by force if necessary. It has suspended official exchanges with the island, staged a series of war games and poached seven of Taiwan’s allies since Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.

More than 1,000 PLA warplanes have entered Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ since last year as part of the pressure campaign, fuelling tensions in the region, with military experts warning of the risk of unintended incidents that could spark a cross-strait conflict.

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Su said Taiwan was aware of the risks and had been prudent in its military moves. “These tests and drills are … homeland security measures aimed at safeguarding Taiwan while improving the armed forces’ skills and the technological levels of Taiwan’s home-grown weapons,” Su said.

Chieh Chung, a senior national security researcher at the National Policy Foundation, an opposition Kuomintang party think tank, said Taiwan had developed its own weapons mainly because of the rapid rise in the mainland’s military power.

“In developing our own weapons, we seek to maintain a military balance between the two sides, or at least not to fall sharply behind,” he said.

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