As of today, it doesn't have the hardware. That may be changing. Last week, Lee Wen-chung, chairman of the defense committee in Taiwan's legislature, disclosed that the island was developing missiles that could reach Chinese cities. "Taiwan has the technology and capability to develop a medium-range missile program, which is supported by a secret government budget," Lee told TIME. "We've entered the test-fire phase and may be able to begin mass production in two to five years." In a statement last month, Premier Yu Shyi-kun made it clear that Taiwan would use the missiles if attacked. Yu called for a cold war-style "balance of terror" between the island and China. "If you fire 100 missiles at me, I should be able to fire 100 missiles at you, or at least 50," he told legislators. "If you attack Taipei and Kaohsiung, I will attack Shanghai." Beijing called Yu's comments "a serious provocation and clamoring for war." Washington rebuked both sides, saying "we oppose moves by either side that would increase tensions across the Taiwan Strait."
The U.S. has long tried to keep Taiwan from developing offensive missiles, going so far as to pressure Taiwan to shut down such a program in the early 1980s. And Taiwan is in the middle of a spirited national debate on an $18 billion proposed purchase of largely defensive hardware from the U.S., which includes eight diesel-electric submarines, 12 P-3C Orion antisubmarine aircraft and Patriot missile defense systems. Taiwan's doves, and even some of its former military officers, oppose the purchase, arguing that it is too expensive and will only raise cross-strait tensions.
"The missiles might be emotionally satisfying and politically compelling in Taiwan," says James Mulvenon, an Asia expert at the Rand Corp., "but they are not in the U.S. national interest." Michael A. McDevitt, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who is now with the CNA Corp., a Virginia-based think tank, says the deterrent effect is also questionable: Beijing is unlikely to be cowed if it really wants to invade. Offensive missiles for Taiwan are "really stupid," McDevitt says. That's one analysis the U.S. and China can probably agree on.