BEIJING // Taiwan has decided not to deploy a new rocket system on islands close to China, according to reports, a move interpreted as a further sign of the warming of relations between Taipei and Beijing.
The news, reported in a Taipei daily paper, comes a fortnight after the two sides deepened ties by signing an agreement over drug development and disease outbreaks, the latest in a string of deals.
Analysts are watching to see if Beijing reciprocates by reducing its battery of more than 1,500 missiles aimed at Taiwan, with concessions from the mainland likely to aid the Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, in his 2012 re-election bid.
According to the China Times, Taiwan's new Ray Ting 2000 rocket system will not be stationed on the Kinmen island group, which lies just a few kilometres from the coast of mainland China. The rocket system has been developed over the past decade and Taiwan will start mass-producing the weapons later this year, Agence France-Presse reported the newspaper as saying.
More than 50 systems are due to be produced, costing 14.5 billion Taiwan dollars (Dh1.83bn), with each able to fire up to 40 rockets within a minute. The system is said to be good for stopping enemy amphibious craft before they reach land.
Ding Xueliang, a foreign affairs analyst at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, called the news "a positive sign of much-reduced hostility between the two sides". But he said it was unclear whether Beijing would respond.
Cutting its missile tally would require, he said, the agreement of the military and "a great majority" of the nine members of China's central politburo. The support of either was uncertain, he said. "The military leadership, they perhaps would argue that a reduction in missiles may send the wrong message to independence forces in Taiwan or a wrong message to the US and Japan. These arguments have been made several times before," he said.
Taiwan has built up its defence research and development and manufacturing capabilities because few countries apart from the US will sell it weapons for fear of upsetting China, which claims Taiwan as its own. Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 when the communists took control of the mainland.
Early last year, Taiwan purchased US$6.4 billion (Dh23.51bn) worth of Patriot missiles, mine-hunting ships and Black Hawk helicopters from the US. While China protested this agreement, analysts believe Beijing has strengthened the hardware it directs at Taiwan as part of a wider military build-up that saw double-digit increases in defence spending every year between 1989 and 2009. Reports from mid-2010 indicated Beijing was looking last year to add several hundred missiles to about 1,600 it already had targeted at the island, despite a warming of relations since the mainland-friendly Mr Ma took office in May 2008. Observers say Beijing is keen for Mr Ma to stay in power in the hope this would improve the likelihood of talks over the island's status.
If China reduced its Taiwan-targeted arsenal, this would likely improve the nationalist Mr Ma's 2012 electoral prospects against the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is more suspicious of deepening ties with Beijing.
However, Wong Yiuchung, a professor of political science at Lingnan University, said Taiwan's move with the Ray Ting 2000 was probably insufficient to prompt Beijing to reduce its missile numbers.
He said China's "impatience" over the absence of negotiations meant further concessions from Taiwan were required. While China and Taiwan have agreed to deals to ease trade and transit, Mr Ma has indicated talks on the island's status will not take place before 2012.
"I think Beijing will not be satisfied with this gesture [with the missiles]," he said. "Beijing does not want the relationship to deteriorate, but they want more from Ma, because the mainland has already given too many concessions to Ma and they've not got much in return."