Taiwan tries to stand tall But residents rush to secure property

some prepare to flee

March 09, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Rattled by the most serious military confrontation with China in 40 years, Taiwan promised revenge yesterday if China's missile exercises result in this island's airspace or territorial waters being violated.

The warning reflected a general feeling here that -- despite a sell-off of stocks, panic buying of U.S. dollars and hoarding of rice -- Taiwan cannot afford to feel bullied by China over the coming days if it wants to remain master of its destiny.

"If they trespass our territorial waters, we will fight back," Defense Minister Chiang Chung-ling said after an emergency Cabinet meeting. "We will take countermeasures according to the situation at the time."

That line seemed to find support on the street, where people reacted to China's missile tests with a mixture of anger and bravado.

"If we don't take action, then we'd admit that they have control over our territory," said Chuang Shulin, a student at Taiwan University who was participating in a downtown rally that had been organized by classmates opposed the tests.

Later in the day, at one of the city's colorful night markets, people were angry at what they said was China's effort to ruin their democratization.

"They can talk trash about us all they want, but if they hit us we have to hit back," said Huang Hsiang, who runs a stall selling pungent tofu. "We're having elections and aren't changing that to please them. Let them fire their missiles if they want."

China fired three missiles toward Taiwan early yesterday morning from bases in Jiangxi province. Guided by radar bases in the Chinese coastal city of Fuzhou, two landed in designated splash zones south of the island and one in a zone to the north.

China had previously warned ships and planes to avoid the zones, which were strategically placed so that they lie in international waters but are still just off the island's two busiest ports.

Shipping companies said they were unaffected by the tests, but some fishermen are refusing to leave port, and at least 30 commercial flights a day are being rerouted until the tests end next Friday.

In Washington yesterday, Defense Secretary William J. Perry sharply criticized China for the tests, saying that the launchings could have misfired and resulted in civilian deaths.

"The action they took with these missile firings was reckless," Mr. Perry said. "It could only be viewed as an act of coercion."

Mr. Perry said that several U.S. naval vessels are in the area, including the aircraft carrier USS Independence, and that U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were also monitoring the missile exercises.

Tensions between Taiwan and China have peaked in recent days as China tries to influence Taiwan's March 23 presidential election, the first democratic presidential elections in the island's -- or for that matter in China's -- history.

The vote pits incumbent Lee Teng-hui against three rivals, the strongest of whom advocates independence for the island. Beijing is doubly concerned because it believes that Mr. Lee, who is expected to win, is not really committed to eventually reuniting China and Taiwan.

Taiwan has been governed separately from China for most of the past century. It was a Japanese colony until 1945 and then was run by China's Nationalist Party, which retreated there in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Communists.

Since then the Nationalists, now led by Mr. Lee, have claimed to want reunification with China, but have also been pushing for a separate seat in the United Nations and diplomatic recognition abroad.

Pulling in the leash

Sensing that Taiwan is moving out of its orbit, China has stepped up pressure to force Taiwan to give up its dreams of independence.

Yesterday, China upped the ante further, indicating that the missile tests were just the beginning of what could be months of exercises.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said that exercises will keep going if "Taiwanese authorities keep seeking independence," the state-run New China News Agency reported. a separate speech cited by the news agency, foreign Minister Qian Qichen said Taiwanese should consider why the tests are taking place.

"What they should really worry about is that the independence seekers, with support from some international forces bent on splitting China, continue on their wrong path," Mr. Qian said. "That will be a real disaster."

Many Taiwanese, however, believe that the disaster is already upon them. Despite the talk of standing tall to China, many are seeking to leave the island or secure their wealth in case China launches a full-fledged blockade. Stocks have plunged in recent days and have stabilized only because the government is spending record amounts to prevent a total crash. This has helped investors in the short run but put on hold efforts to liberalize Taiwan's financial markets.

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