Wednesday, March 17, 2004

China carried out at least five missile tests since January as part of a major buildup of missile forces before a vote in Taiwan on the mainland missile threat, U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.

The test firings included four types of missiles, including Beijing’s new DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile and at least one new type of warhead.

“There is a big push underway and missile development and testing is a large part of their military modernization effort,” one official said.

Disclosure of the missile tests comes as Taiwan plans a referendum Saturday on the threat posed to the island by China’s missiles, including about 500 missile now deployed within striking distance.

The referendum asks voters whether Taiwan should buy advanced missile defenses if China refuses to withdraw its 500 missiles aimed at the island.

The new warhead tested by the Chinese recently was described as a “cluster warhead” that spreads multiple bomblets rather than a single blast. The warheads are used against airfields and troop concentrations.

The missile tests appear to be a subtle signal to Taiwan ahead of the presidential elections set for Saturday, the officials said. China has held off from conducting large-scale war games near Taiwan as it has done in the past.

The vote this weekend could determine whether Taiwan goes ahead with plans to buy U.S. missile defense systems, including Patriot PAC-3 systems and eventually Aegis-equipped warships, that are the base for a new Navy wide-area, sea-based missile defense.

Officials said the tests included short-range missile tests of the DF-11 and DF-15, also known as CSS-7 and CSS-6 respectively.

These are the missiles that China has deployed opposite Taiwan in large numbers. About 500 short-range missiles are now deployed in the provinces across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan and China is adding up to 75 new missiles a year.

Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith recently traveled to Beijing where he urged Chinese leaders to withdraw the missiles in order to avoid further destabilizing the region.

Mr. Feith was told by the Chinese that the missile deployments are an internal affair of Beijing.

In addition to the short-range missiles, China also recently tested a DF-21 medium-range missile. The DF-21 has a range of about 1,116 miles and can be fired from land-based silos and from submarines.

Finally, the long-range DF-31 was tested. The DF-31 is a new, road-mobile ICBM that China has been developing for several years. The missile is estimated to have a range of about 5,000 miles.

The DF-11 and DF-15 have ranges of 186 miles and 372 miles respectively.

All the missiles were fired from the Wuzhai missile testing center in central China and traveled toward the western part of the country.

There had been fears that the Chinese would test the missiles toward Taiwan, but China avoided west-to-east launches due to concerns about Taiwan, officials said.

“These tests make a mockery of all the efforts made by Washington to suppress the Taiwan missile referendum,” said Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the Center for Security Policy.

Some officials in the Bush administration have said the missile referendum is not needed because it might upset Beijing, which views the missile referendum as a step toward Taiwan’s independence.

The Taiwanese government this summer plans to submit a budget to the legislative yuan, as the parliament is known, for $16 billion in new defense spending over 10 years, double its current defense budget.

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