Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou has expressed his frustration after an unusually public test firing of 19 surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles became a national embarrassment.
Nearly a third of the missiles missed their targets, incurring the wrath of Mr Ma, who presided over the test, and raising new questions about Taiwan’s readiness to defend itself against Chinese attack.
The exercise followed last week’s successful test flight of China’s next generation J-20 stealth aircraft, a system expected to further widen its growing edge over Taiwan’s own equipment-starved air force.
Mr Ma’s presence at the base in southern Taiwan where the missile test was conducted was meant to underscore his commitment to the maintenance of an effective Taiwanese deterrent, but the poor performance clearly disappointed him.
“I’m not satisfied with the results,” he told reporters when the test was concluded. “I hope the military will find out the reasons and improve its training.”
The missile test was the first to be held in full view of the media for almost a decade. It was meant, Mr Ma said, “to bring more transparency into military affairs and allow the public to view the military’s readiness”.
Six of the missiles failed to hit their targets, including one RIM-7M Sparrow, which dropped harmlessly into the South China Sea less than 30 seconds after launch.
Following China’s well-publicised test of the J-20 last week, the normally pro-government United Daily News questioned Mr Ma’s policy of shifting the military’s main mission away from national defence and towards disaster relief, commenting that “the more important mission for the military is to defend (Taiwan) against threats”.
The shift in military priorities, unveiled in the immediate wake of a devastating typhoon in August 2009, reflects Mr Ma’s belief that his continuing efforts to lower tensions with China – the main theme of his two and a half year-old administration – make war across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait less likely than ever before.
The two sides split amid civil war in 1949, and since then Beijing has reserved the right to invade the democratic island of 23 million people if it moves to make its de facto independence permanent – something Mr Ma opposes.