BEIJING — By firing ballistic missiles near Taiwan's coast, China has sown the seeds of a new and worrisome Asian arms race, military experts and defense officials say.
Defense ministry officials from Tokyo to New Delhi have been forced to reassess their strategies in the face of China's willingness to use medium-range missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, to achieve its political goals.
"The first time you use missiles in this way, you go over a threshold," said a Western diplomat in Beijing. "This is a unique event in the region. It is the first time a nuclear-capable missile has been used other than [as] a pure test into an instrumented range."
The People's Liberation Army first fired six medium-range M-9 missiles at a sea target 85 miles north of Taiwan in July after Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui infuriated the Beijing leadership by traveling on a private visit to the United States.
This month, the army fired four more M-9s at sea targets even closer to Taiwan, only 20 miles away at one point.
In an interview published here Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Li Qianming--the deputy commander of China's elite 2nd Artillery Force, which fired the missiles--said the tests were conducted to enhance China's ability to "win a regional war of advanced technology."
Li described the performance of the missiles in the Chinese arsenal as "more advanced than the Scud missiles, which became famous during the Gulf War." Indeed, Asia military experts have been impressed by the accuracy of the M-9 missiles. According to the Nikkei newspaper in Tokyo, the Japan Defense Agency reported that the missiles are accurate to within about 330 to 550 yards.
For China's neighbors, particularly Japan and South Korea, the missile firings represent a new willingness by the Chinese military, bolstered by five years of substantial defense budget increases, to use force in the region. In this respect, the tests and massive military exercises on China's coast have implications beyond the immediate threat they pose for Taiwan.
"Things may work out for Taiwan and China in the future," said another Western diplomat, "but it may not work out for China and the rest of Asia. There will be some new questions about how China operates in the area. There will be evaluations of China's threat capabilities and intentions. The impression is that in the post-Taiwan-crisis era, China will be much more willing to use force than it was before."
Masashi Nishihara, a research director for the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo, said the missile tests will cause Japan to consider more seriously a proposal from the United States to co-develop the Theater Missile Defense, or TMD, system that has been studied for the past two years.
"This is definitely a more urgent issue with us now--how to cope with missiles of that kind in the future," Nishihara said. "So far, it has been very difficult for Japan in a full-fledged manner to develop Theater Missile Defense with America because of constitutional restraints and all kinds of political issues."
Last year, the Japanese government committed $4 million to study the missile defense system, sometimes described as a "mini Star Wars," in which satellites would be used to spot incoming missiles and direct their destruction. The government has deferred until 1997 a decision about joining the project, estimated to cost as much as $20 billion.
China has publicly opposed the missile defense project. A government arms expert said in an interview last year that the development of the project would mean "expanding the arms race to space." In January 1995, another Chinese official warned that development of the system "would disturb the Asia-Pacific regional situation."
In the longer term, said Nishihara, China's missile tests will create pressure in Japan to develop its own offensive weapons system. At this point, Japan is restrained by its constitution from developing such systems.
"As China is crossing over this threshold, we may be forced to cross over our own kind of threshold and develop second-strike capabilities," said Nishihara, whose institute is a research arm of the Japan Defense Agency. "This is a very difficult decision for us. I don't think that, for a while, the government is ready to do this, but I think we have to start considering the options."
In South Korea, the Chinese missile firings have prompted newspaper editorials and appeals from defense experts calling for the government to increase its own military capabilities.
"The military threat of China on Taiwan during the past two weeks shattered the illusion Asians had for peace in Asia," wrote Moon Myong Ho, director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center.
Moon, who is also editorial page editor of the Munhwa Ilbo daily newspaper in Seoul, called for South Korea and other Asian countries to join in a collective security system.
"This is the lesson Chinese military strength has taught Korea," Moon wrote in the Tuesday editions of his newspaper.