China’s military is covertly buying U.S. commercial satellite photographs of Taiwan that U.S. intelligence officials say will be used to target the island with the mainland’s growing arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles.
Satellite photographs of most of the island are being purchased by China through a South Korean company, U.S. intelligence officials say.
The purchase of high-resolution satellite photographs is a new development indicating that China’s military is increasing the accuracy of its ballistic missiles targeted at Taiwan and is developing a new land-attack cruise missile, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Disclosure of the missile-targeting reports comes amid recent signs of a thaw in relations between China and Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
President Bush is set to visit China beginning Feb. 21 for talks expected to include discussions of U.S. arms sales and military support for Taiwan, which Beijing opposes.
In May, China test-fired a new cruise missile that was part of a program to deploy a land-attack cruise missile, Beijing’s answer to the U.S. Tomahawk. A second test was conducted in August.
The land-attack cruise missile is guided by an on board computer programed to fly close to the ground and requires detailed terrain mapping data to reach its target. U.S. intelligence officials believe the satellite photographs are for such terrain mapping.
Larry Wortzel, a specialist on the Chinese military at the Heritage Foundation, said Beijing’s purchase of satellite imagery of Taiwan is worrisome.
“Despite the talk by China’s communist leaders about seeking a peaceful resolution in the Taiwan Strait, the People’s Liberation Army is methodically preparing for the use of ballsitic missiles and terrain and contour-modeling [tercom] cruise missiles to attack the democratic nation on Taiwan in order to bring it under communist rule,” Mr. Wortzel said.
“As President Bush prepares for his trip to China, he should be told that when PRC leaders make oral commitments to do one thing, but act secretly to do another, it is impossible to accept their promises to stop proliferation or their calls for ‘world peace and stability.’”
Xie Feng, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, said he was unaware of the satellite photograph purchases. On the question of Taiwan, Mr. Xie said China seeks “peaceful reunification” but has both “the determination and ability” to stop Taiwan’s “independence.”
The new Chinese cruise missile is estimated to have the capability of carrying a warhead weighing 1,100 pounds with a range that is not known, U.S. officials said. Most long-range cruise missiles can fly at least 500 miles, with U.S. cruise missiles having ranges up to several thousand miles.
China also is increasing the accuracy of its short-range ballistic missiles deployed opposite Taiwan. Some 350 CSS-6 and CSS-7 missiles have been fielded within range of Taiwan in the past several years, increasing tensions.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and a specialist on satellite imagery, said China has no satellite that can produce high-resolution photographs.
Mr. Pike said U.S. companies are not legally prohibited from selling commercial photographs to China and that images are not covered by export controls.
“This sort of imagery is fundamental for attack planning,” Mr. Pike said. “It’s the basis for any sort of targeting work for missile targeting, for any airborne assault planning they might be doing. You really could not think about doing serious military planning without this sort of imagery.”
U.S. officials did not identify the South Korean company that was buying the photographs on behalf of China. However, the purchase is being carried out through Space Imaging’s South Korean affiliate in Seoul.
CIA and White House National Security Council spokesmen declined to comment.
Mark Brender, a Space Imaging spokesman, said, “Like many American companies, we would like to grow the Asian market.”
“We have regional affilliates in Seoul and Tokyo,” he said. “Those affiliates are expanding their business in China, and we require them to comply with all U.S. laws and regulations.”
Space Imaging operates the Ikonos satellite that is capable of taking pictures any place on Earth and producing images sharp enough to see objects larger than about 3 feet.
Defense officials said China’s military buildup opposite Taiwan is continuing. Last year, the largest war games in years were held opposite the island.
Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said in a speech last month that China and North Korea are two places in the region where “the threat of aggression plays a significant role.”
“China retains the threat of force if Taiwan does not meet certain conditions,” Adm. Blair said. “It is deploying missiles and modernizing its armed forces with the stated purpose of intimidating Taiwan.”
The statements drew a harsh rebuke from the official newspaper of the Chinese military. “The arguments about ‘threats from China’ can never intimidate China,” the newspaper PLA Daily stated Jan. 21.
China will pursue reuniting Taiwan on Beijing’s terms “and will never rule out the possibility of using force if necessary,” it said.
Three days later, Chinese Vice Prime Minister Qian Qichen gave a speech on Taiwan that was viewed by observers as one of the more conciliatory statements by the communist government in years.
Mr. Qian said that “although the two sides are not unified, both sides should actively create conditions and strive to reduce contradictions, improve relations between the two sides and break through the political stalemate.”
He did not repeat Beijing’s oft-stated position that China will use military force to reunite Taiwan if efforts at peaceful reunification fail.