Missile diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 August, 1999, 12:00am

China's test yesterday of a new long-range missile - probably the Dongfeng-31, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead 8,000 kilometres - is an abrupt reminder that there are good causes for concern about its military intentions and capabilities.

There is special reason to pay close attention just now. Angered by an apparent effort by Taiwan's President to redefine their cross-strait relations, Beijing has been dropping hints about possible armed action against Taiwan, in the future if not quite yet. Testing an advanced missile at this time adds to the anxiety felt across Asia.

Even so, several things need to be kept in perspective, and the nervousness should be kept within distinct limits.

For one thing, deploying a few intercontinental rockets hasn't got much to do with bringing Taiwan under China's political sovereignty someday. It could be argued that potential blackmail of America is involved; China might threaten Los Angeles if the US defends Taipei. But that would not be brilliant strategy, given the 15-1 disparity between US and Chinese warheads.

Neither do long-range missiles have much relevance to disputes closer to home, such as rival claims over the South China Sea. They do offset India's nuclear forces, but those exist for reasons mostly unrelated to China.

Of course, adding new missiles, perhaps with multiple warheads made possible by stolen American technology (if the Cox report has any validity), does give Beijing's military a more fearsome appearance. If China's goal is to worry the neighbours, it may well be succeeding. But why it should want to do that, especially when economic development remains the top priority, isn't clear. Yesterday's test suggests its leaders need to think hard about the political consequences of their military acts.

Even so, the neighbours shouldn't grow too nervous. Despite buying more modern weapons, China's 'armed forces are not very good, and not getting better very fast', according to two specialists at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. They cite poor mobility, spotty training, communications problems and nepotism among the many weaknesses.

The missile test is a wake-up call; China's military capabilities are growing while its intentions remain murky. But the call remains much less than an urgent alarm.