China turns up heat on Taiwan Air force, navy to hold exercises near island with live ammunition

Gambit against election

Beijing also expands off-limit area

Taiwan prepares for warfare

March 10, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Increasing its pressure on Taiwan, China announced yesterday a new round of military exercises and declared another swath of international waters off-limits to air and sea travel.

The exercises, due to begin Tuesday and to continue for eight days, are to involve air and naval units firing live ammunition. They follow China's launch last week of three unarmed missiles into "test areas" near Taiwan's two main ports.

Taiwan responded yesterday by forming a disaster center to coordinate relief in the event of an attack and announcing that it was activating new ground-to-air missile batteries on islands it controls near the mainland.

In both the timing and location of this latest round of exercises, China has sought to make its opposition to Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui unmistakable.

The exercises are scheduled to end only three days before Taiwan's first direct presidential election, on March 23. They also mark the first occasion that a large military force will conduct maneuvers right up to the midway point of the 137-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan from China.

China strongly disapproves of Mr. Lee, whom it suspects of trying to lead Taiwan to independence. The island was once under central Chinese control, but more recently was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945 and since then run by the Chinese Nationalist Party, which retreated to Taiwan after losing China's civil war in 1949.

But for all China's determination to prove that it has the military might to bring Taiwan to heel, it's still unclear who is supposed to be impressed. Analysts dispute whether the show of military fireworks is a warning to Taiwan's president, his opponents, the United States, or China's civilian leaders -- or all of them.

The analysts agree, however, that China is not trying to start a major war. "China does not want war with Taiwan. But the fact that they don't want war doesn't mean they won't be drawn into one," said Richard Baum, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Some believe that China is trying to send a message to Taiwan's voters, telling them that a vote for Mr. Lee is a vote for instability. China wants the heavily favored Mr. Lee to obtain less than 50 percent of the votes in this month's election, so it can claim that he does not have the majority of Taiwanese behind him.

"The aim of Communist China's exercises is to interfere with the elections and to reduce the votes of the president," Mr. Lee said yesterday in a televised address.

Others say the tests are designed to discourage voters from choosing Mr. Lee's main rival, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. A weak DPP showing could be hailed by Beijing as proof that its strong actions ended the push for separatism.

As for the United States, China criticizes it for meddling in Chinese affairs by having allowed Mr. Lee to travel last year to the United States and now by sending military forces to monitor China's missile tests.

In China itself, the tests may be the military's method of reminding its civilian minders that it wants a greater say in running the country. With leader Deng Xiaoping now replaced by relatively untested civilians, the military may be saying that it must be consulted on questions regarding China's territorial integrity.

And China also is in the midst of a huge change in how it sees the world.

For centuries a land power whose enemies were nomadic tribes, China is now confident of its borders and is turning its attention overseas.

"They're shifting from a continental to a maritime strategy," said a Western diplomat based on Beijing. "It's a huge shift for China that has consequences for Taiwan and the rest of Asia."

China's strategic refocus can be seen in actions in a number of fields, all of which are designed to boost the country's ability to project power and attain long-cherished foreign policy goals, such as reunification with Taiwan.

China, for example, is testing a new generation of smaller, more sophisticated missiles.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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