Next troublesome missile test: Taiwan?

Taiwan may be preparing to test-fire a missile in September capable of striking – and angering – China.

As Asia grapples with the fallout from North Korea's projectile posturing, another military flashpoint in the region – the Taiwan Strait – is in the midst of missile tensions as well.

A private TV station reported earlier this month that Taiwan's military was preparing to test-fire a tactical missile in September capable of striking targets in China. While the details were sketchy and the claim was swiftly denied by the Ministry of National Defense, they struck a chord with analysts who have heeded the frustration among hawks in Taiwan over the island's vulnerability in the face of China's military might, including its expanding missile arsenal.

In the event of an imminent attack, Taiwan would be justified in launching a preemptive strike against military targets in China, runs the hawkish argument. This should go hand-in-hand with improved defenses on the island, including advanced interceptor missiles and attack aircraft. "Even if we are going to buy [US-made] Patriot missiles, we also need to develop our own offensive missiles," says Lee Wen-chung, a government legislator.

Such attitudes present a dilemma for the US, which is reportedly urging Taiwan to back off its missile program. US diplomacy in the region is a balancing act between deterring China from invading Taiwan and restraining President Chen Shui-bian on the issue of Taiwanese sovereignty. In this context, a homegrown missile primed to strike the mainland could be a red flag to China.

"Some of Chen's advisers clearly think Taiwan should have a land strike capability against [China]. This is worrisome if you believe, as some analysts do, that this is destabilizing rather than stabilizing," says Denny Roy of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Taiwan's indigenous missile program includes a cruise missile with a 1,000 kilometer (621-mile) range and an antiship missile that could reach Chinese naval bases. But analysts say hitting targets in China would be unlikely without satellite mapping data and precision-guidance systems.

Taiwanese defense officials declined to be interviewed. A recent government review paper doesn't mention offensive missiles, but spells out Taiwan's "active defense" policy. "We want to ensure our defensive capacity to make China realize the cost of solving the Taiwan issue with military force would be higher than it expects," it says.

Since 2001, Taiwan's politicians have sparred over a US offer to sell arms. Valued between $10 billion and $19 billion, the deal was designed to shore up defenses against a rapidly modernizing Chinese army, but has been criticized as unduly sophisticated and impractical, and bogged down amid efforts to unseat President Chen.

Taiwan is currently targeted by around 800 Chinese-built missiles that would reach the island within seven minutes of being launched. In March, Taiwanese officials warned that China was expanding its arsenal and could deploy as many as 1,800 missiles within four years.

Given this rapid build up, analysts argue that first-strike tactical missiles are a pipe dream, and a provocation that could sully US relations. This would be counterproductive, since Taiwanese war planning hinges on the expectation of a US military intervention. Taiwan is already struggling to assuage US frustrations over the stalled arms deal and the perception that the island is a free-rider under the US security umbrella.

There may also be less to Taiwan's missile program than meets the eye, says Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a security think tank in Taipei. The designs are mostly unproven, and researchers have few resources. "The program isn't dead, it's alive and kicking, but it lacks funding," he says.

Taiwan would have difficulty acquiring offensive weapons given the likely pressure from China on supplier countries. And Taiwan's defense budget amounts to only $8.4 billion. China's official defense budget is around $35 billion – with Pentagon estimates much higher.

One wild card is the run-up to Taiwan's 2008 presidential election, when Chen is expected to turn up the rhetoric on Taiwanese sovereignty to rally his base. That could provoke China into the kind of saber rattling that erupted in 1996 when it test-fired missiles off the coast. But analysts say China is now taking a more nuanced approach.

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