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Next troublesome missile test: Taiwan?

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

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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.

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