China to hold missile tests directly off Taiwan's coast Exercises seen as bid to stifle island-state's notions of independence

March 05, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- China said this morning that it will start a weeklong series of surface-to-surface missile tests Friday, serving a warning to Taiwan to abandon thoughts of independence and reminding the United States that intervention in the region could lead to war.

The tests are to take place in two areas, directly to the north and to the south of Taiwan, according to a short statement on the government-run New China News Agency.

China warned "relevant countries" and "relevant regions" that their ships and aircraft should not enter the areas during the test period.

"Regions" referred to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, not a country. Taiwan has been run since 1945 by the Chinese Nationalist Party, which lost China's civil war to the mainland's communists. The island is to hold elections that China fears will lead to independence.

"They want to influence our shipping, but more importantly they want to demonstrate that they have power over the fate of Taiwan," said Lin Yu-fang, a lecturer at Taiwan's Armed Forces University.

The missile tests are expected to be the start of a series of military exercises, including simulated beach landings. Western diplomats estimate that 150,000 Chinese troops have massed in Fujian province across the 137-mile straits from Taiwan.

With China's air force and navy widely rated as too backward to launch an invasion, military exercises of troops storming beaches could be dismissed as empty propaganda.

But missile tests are feared because Taiwan has no defense against them. The tests are seen as a reminder that China has the power to disrupt the air and sea lanes that are vital to the island's export-based economy.

The threat of war has seen tension rise dramatically in the region, with panic rice-buying taking place in parts of China near where the exercises will occur. Air and shipping traffic already has been disrupted in China, leading to local rumblings that the government's saber-rattling is damaging the local economy.

However, influencing Taiwan's elections has become an overriding concern of Beijing over the past year.

China conducted a series of missile and artillery tests in the waters off Taiwan last July and August to show its anger with Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's policies.

Mr. Lee is expected to be re-elected in the first democratic elections for the presidency in Taiwan -- and the first democratic elections in Chinese history for the head of a large Chinese region.

China is nervous at the democratic precedent and also opposed to Mr. Lee's expected victory because he is suspected of harboring secret plans to seek independence for Taiwan.

But with Mr. Lee's victory all but assured the tests may have little impact on the elections. Instead they may say more about the growing role of the military in China's domestic politics. Instead of foreign policy overtures to restart negotiations, the tests are a way to show anger without taking real action, some observers say.

"The exercises will take place in part because the Chinese leadership is too weak and divided to do anything else," said Gerald Segal, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The United States also has been drawn into the conflict because China fears a visa it granted Mr. Lee last summer for a private visit was a precursor for greater U.S. recognition of Taiwan and the beginning of the end for Washington's "one-China policy," which recognizes Beijing as the sole representative of China.

The United States also has helped modernize Taiwan's air force, selling advanced F-16 aircraft that give Taiwan air superiority over China.

Whatever the outcome of the missile tests and elections, the clear winner in the current tensions may well be U.S. arms manufacturers, who already are lobbying the administration to sell even more advanced weapons to Taiwan, said Dr. June Teufel Dreyer, a military expert at the University of Miami in Florida.

"Should China be able to convince Taiwan to downplay the significance of these elections, they'll have won a significant propaganda victory without doing any real physical harm to Taiwan," Dr. Dreyer said. "On the other hand, it's being done so ham-handedly as to generate sympathy for Taiwan."

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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