China’s Three Gorges Dam a military target in war with Taiwan, India?

This past week there has been an uptick of Chinese fighter jets violating Taiwan airspace.  Multiple Chinese Su-30 and J-10 fighters had entered Taiwan’s “response zone” to its southwest, prompting the island’s defence ministry to condemn this “destabilizing action which threatened regional peace.”

Indeed, these provocative actions elevate the risks of miscalculation and escalation of military conflict. On September 4 when a Chinese Su-35 crashed in Guangxi in southern China, Indian press and social media began reporting that Taiwan’s patriot missile defence system had shot it down.

Relations between India and China are currently tense and at a nadir not seen since the 1970s, following the violent border clash in Galwan Valley back in June that killed 20 Indian soldiers and left an unknown number of Chinese dead. The primitive weapons of nail-studded rods used to bludgeon Indian soldiers to death especially sparked outrage and fortified Indian hardliners against China.

Nonetheless, despite the Su-35 incident’s viral spread in India and China, Taiwan Ministry of Defence was quick to issue a statement denying they had shot down the Chinese fighter jet, as U.S. gave a sigh of relief.  The last thing U.S. wants right now is a cross-strait conflagration in midst of a pandemic and civil unrest during an election year.

Asias alliance of democracies

Realising U.S. may or may not come to Taiwan’s defence under Washington’s current policy of “strategic ambiguity”, Taipei is taking steps to join India and Japan in forging an Asian “arc of freedom” to counter China.  The “arc of freedom” was championed by New Delhi and Tokyo in 2014 to align democratic countries in Asia to withstand China’s regional expansion.

This week, at the Ketagalan Forum’s Asia Pacific Security Dialogue in Taipei, Taiwan’s President Tsai called for an alliance of democracies to oppose China. With an international audience that included keynote speaker and former U.S. National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, Tsai exhorted that “It is time for like-minded countries, and democratic friends in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, to discuss a framework to generate sustained and concerted efforts to maintain a strategic order that deters unilateral aggressive actions.”

In the absence of treaty allies, Taiwan understands the imperative of coalition-building. Often dubbed as “the Israel of the Far East”, Taiwan shares similarities with Israel as a democratic country and staunch U.S. ally facing autocratic adversaries, yet lacks a mutual defence treaty by virtue of their diplomatic isolation/boycott and questions over legitimacy of their national sovereignty.

As such it is no wonder Taiwan is now stepping up efforts to engage democratic countries outside of Asia such as Israel in the Middle East, and next year Taipei will be sending a military delegation to study reserve forces in Israel. With NATO now turning its eyes towards China and the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) will likely increase its cooperation with fellow MNNA Israel, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand.

Three Gorges Dam a military target

In the meantime, miscalculation and accidental military conflict remains a concern. There is a real risk of China overreaching with its cross-Strait military provocations and a fearful Taiwan overreacting.  In this case, the Three Gorges Dam may become a military target.

In a recent interview with German-Chinese hydraulic engineer Wang Weiluo, he mentioned how the Chinese have long been cognizant of the dam as a military target for terrorists and adversaries, and has thus set up a thick layer of ground and air defences to protect the dam.

Nonetheless, in a scenario of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Taiwanese defence planners have since the 1990s discussed using long-range missiles to hit the dam. Given the concurrent tense relations between India and China, with Indian generals warning of military escalation, this may also be a likely target should further conflict break out.

But if this happens, it would be devastating to China as 400 million people live downstream, as well as the majority of the PLA’s reserve forces that are located midstream and downstream of the Yangtze River.  According to Wang, if the dam is bombed and the water rushes down, 90% of the PLA airborne division would be wiped out.

As such it is precarious that China, India and Taiwan are all engaged in a game of chicken at this juncture. Hopefully there is a hotline among the militaries for de-escalation, because the well-being of millions of their people hang in the balance.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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