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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 00:33 GMT 01:33 UK
Storm across the Taiwan Strait

By Chris Hogg
BBC Taiwan correspondent

Seven and a half lines of text, tucked away at the end of an inch-thick Pentagon report on the military capabilities of China's People's Liberation Army, have provoked a stream of vitriol from China's state media.

Three Gorges Dam
The US report suggested the Three Gorges Dam might be targeted

The offending passage says political and military leaders in Taipei have suggested acquiring weapons capable of striking against the Chinese mainland as a cost-effective means of deterrence.

"Proponents of strikes against the mainland apparently hope that merely presenting credible threats to China's urban population, or high-value targets, such as the Three Gorges dam, will deter Chinese military coercion," the report said.

China's state media responded that this was tantamount to terrorism, and condemned the United States for "instigating Taiwan to engage in terrorism to hurt China's core national interests".

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The Bush administration of course sees it differently. But the row has again exposed the difficulties Washington faces in balancing the competing needs of Beijing and Taipei.

First, though, a reality check. How likely is Taiwan to launch a strike against the Three Gorges dam?

The theory, at least, is not new. In October 2002 a paper from the US think tank, the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, suggested that in order to develop a deterrent, "Taiwan could try to develop the capability to inflict unacceptable losses and damage on China through military targets of its own."

"This would require the ability to destroy military, economic, or symbolic targets such as major population centres, Shanghai's Pudong Tower or even the Three Gorges Dam."

The report went on to suggest, though, that the amount of damage Taiwan's military forces could deliver would be insufficient to deter a missile attack by China.

The alternative - the development of a weapons of mass destruction programme - would jeopardise the US-Taiwan relationship and would be likely to provoke a pre-emptive Chinese attack.

More recently Taiwan's Deputy Defence Minister Tsai Ming Hsian was asked in the territory's legislature whether the Taiwanese military had the ability to attack the Three Gorges Dam. "Yes," he said.

Taiwan's Ministry of Defence however later denied reports that Mr Tsai's boss, the Defence Secretary Li Jie, had also confirmed the island's ability to attack Three Gorges. Officials appeared to rule out such a capability.

Whether that was deliberate obfuscation or a case of the political imperative taking precedence over the military, experts are sceptical the tactic would be used.

The Three Gorges dam lies around 1,500km (932 miles) from Taiwan, while most of Taiwan's military aircraft have a combat radius of between 900 and 1,200km.

Dr Wang Kao-chen, from the Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamking University in Taiwan, told BBC News Online the island's military does not have the ability to carry out such an attack.

"We don't have mid-range missiles," he said. "And our aircraft wouldn't be able to fly far enough to take out the dam."

Timothy Wong Ka Ying from the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said Taiwan "must have discussed the possibility".

"But it could have been just a theoretical discussion, just as plans to attack Hong Kong and Shanghai in the event of war with the mainland would have been considered," he said.

The noted commentator on Taiwan affairs, Lau Yui Siu, believes the island's military would not dare to launch the attack because they do not have a back-up plan.

"Taiwan's attack would provide Beijing with an excuse to respond with overwhelming force. Beijing has the military ability to crush Taiwan easily. In any case, the Three Gorges Dam has been designed to resist such an attack," he said.

Mr Lau believes claims by Taiwanese politicians that Taiwan has the ability to attack the dam are more likely directed at a domestic audience, to reassure people worried about the missile build-up on China's eastern coast.

So if such an attack is, for the moment at least, unlikely, why has Beijing become so exercised about it?

A delegation of Taiwanese lawmakers is currently touring military facilities in the US and holding meetings with Pentagon officials to discuss an $18bn arms deal for the island.

At the same time as it condemned the "terrorist" potential of Taiwan, Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office made clear it opposed "the United States having any official exchanges or military co-operation with Taiwan".

So it makes sense for Beijing to try to characterise Taiwan's military strategy as offensive rather than defensive.

Another possibility is that attempting to brand President Chen Shui-bian's administration as having "terrorist" ambitions is simply another step in Beijing's continuing campaign to blacken the name of a man they suspect harbours a desire to create an independent Taiwan.

Washington caught in the middle

What it also shows is the difficulty Washington faces.

Publicly, it accepts China's so-called "One China" policy and refuses to challenge with any great degree of seriousness Beijing's opposition to Taipei taking part in any inter-governmental body which would convey upon it the trappings of statehood.

Yet at the same time, Washington provides Taiwan with the military support needed to defend itself.

The reality, of course, is that the rhetoric of China's leaders has made clear to their people that anything short of re-unification is unacceptable.

Which is why the potential for a military confrontation across the Taiwan Straits is so significant, and causes Washington such a headache.

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