Despite the growing gap between China’s and Taiwan’s economies and militaries, experts believe that Taiwan possesses the capabilities to strike back if China attacks or invades the island.
Taiwan, population 23 million, is a mere 110 miles across the straits from the People’s Republic of China with its population of 1.3 billion and massive, rapidly modernizing military forces. In this confrontation of David and Goliath, the cruise missiles deployed by Taiwan, according to experts, could prove to be critical for deterring aggression by the Chinese regime.
Washington-based think tank Global Taiwan Institute hosted a panel on trends in Taiwan security and defense policy, including the latest quarterly review by the country’s Ministry of National Defense, on April 12. The review, released in March, highlighted the rapid growth of China’s military capabilities and Taiwan’s continuing fear that the Chinese regime could one day attack or invade the island.
In discussing Taiwan’s defense strategy, Eric Gomez, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said that if Taiwan continues pursuing the development of cruise missile capabilities, it could escalate conflict with the Chinese regime and lead to “outright negative” consequences.
But Michael Mazza, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), disagreed with Gomez, saying that a strong argument can be made for Taiwan to maintain its counter-strike capabilities. He said cruise missiles could serve as a political tool, as the ability of Taiwan to repel an attack, even on a small scale, would force the Chinese people to question the regime’s aggression toward the island nation.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently deploys more than 1,000 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. During the administration of former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who was widely seen as being receptive to the influence of the Chinese regime, the number of PLA missiles aimed at Taiwan did not decrease but actually increased almost twofold.
Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, said Taiwan’s cruise missile program already developed to maturity in the 1990s, and it is “for the reason of politeness” that Taiwan keeps a low profile on the deployment of these weapons, despite China’s aggressive stance.
“Of course, Taiwan needs the ability to hold Shanghai at risk if China holds Taipei at risk,” said Easton. “Taiwan’s missiles raining down on China would be politically humiliating for the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it would have devastating impacts on its legitimacy.”
Amy Chang, an affiliate with the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, also said that Taiwan’s cruise missiles would have an impact on China’s strategic calculus when it comes to potential future conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
The Taiwanese military has already fielded an unknown number of its indigenously designed and produced Hsiung Feng IIE (HF-2E) cruise missiles as a weapon of deterrence against China. The exact range of HF-2E, while never publicly disclosed, is widely speculated to be over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), which would put it in the same league as the U.S. Tomahawk missile.
Both HF-2E and the Tomahawk are propelled by turbofan engines to maximize their attack range, and both are capable of flying at very low altitudes to avoid detection and interception by an enemy’s air defense.
Just this month, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a large-scale airstrike on a Syrian air base. Of the 59 Tomahawk missiles launched from two U.S. Navy destroyers, 58 successfully hit their intended targets, according to U.S. officials. None of the Tomahawk missiles were intercepted by Russia’s S-400 air defense systems deployed in Syria, despite wide expectations and claims regarding S-400’s advanced anti-air and anti-missile capabilities.
China has acquired a significant number of the less advanced S-300 systems (the predecessor to S-400) and has deployed several battalions in the Taiwan Strait region. China is also said to be in the process of acquiring the advanced S-400 system. The successful U.S. strike on April 6, however, cast doubt on the efficacy of the S-300/S-400 systems in intercepting low-flying cruise missiles.
It is not known how Taiwan’s leadership would use its HF-2E missiles in the event of aggression from China. Given the missiles’ long range and precision, however, Taiwan could opt to attack both tactical and strategic targets inside the mainland.
Michael Tsai, former Taiwanese minister of defense, said in a phone interview with The Epoch Times that he concurs with the opinions voiced by some U.S. experts on the panel that Taiwan’s missile counter-strike capabilities are vital for deterring China.
However, Tsai stressed that, on principle, Taiwan would likely only attack military targets inside China and would do its best to avoid inflicting casualties on civilians. The primary targets would be those that pose an immediate threat to Taiwan’s security, such as the PLA’s ballistic missile launchers, air and naval bases, and staging areas that would be used to launch an invasion. “Taiwan will only attack where the aggression is coming from,” said Tsai.
Paul Huang is a master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is affiliated with the Taiwan edition of The Epoch Times.