U.S., China trade words over Taiwan Washington calls 4th missile launch a 'provocative act'

March 13, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan - The confrontation between the United States and China over Taiwan escalated this morning as China launched another missile into the area of its military exercises off the island.

The missile was launched as Taiwan moved reinforcements to its front-line islands and scrambled fighters while Chinese air and sea units started exercises that simulated a partial invasion of the island.

Hours after the exercises started yesterday, China once again warned the United States not to get involved in a situation that it likened to the U.S. Civil War. It said the huge U.S. fleet being assembled near Taiwan risked encouraging separatist sentiment on the island.

After the missile was launched today into the target area China had identified, White House spokesman James Fetig said that the United States "is deeply disturbed by this provocative act."

The air and sea exercises are set to last a week. They overlap a week of missile-launching exercises that will continue until Friday. The missile fired today was the fourth since those exercises began Fri- day. Both exercises were announced by China.

The military display is meant to pressure Taiwan to give up its efforts to break out of diplomatic isolation. Taiwan would like to join international organizations, but Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be brought back under central control in the near future.

Taiwan has been ruled since 1949 by the losers of China's civil war, the Nationalists. The winners, the Communists on the mainland, have never been strong enough to finish off the Nationalists by conquering Taiwan.

The two sides were each other's worst enemies during the Cold War but ties have warmed over the past decade as trade and tourism have boomed.

Yesterday, a bit more of that old hostility was dusted off.

Taiwan put its military on higher alert just a step and a half behind full-scale war footing. That meant sending bomb inspectors across the country to make sure that bomb shelters are marked and basements empty enough to shelter residents.

"What a waste of time," said Taipei resident Ch'iu Kui-cheng as inspectors came by her apartment yesterday afternoon. "The building will probably just collapse on everyone in the basement."

The risks to civilians was highlighted yesterday by the announcement that one of the three missiles fired by China last week traveled through Taiwanese air space north of Taipei, the capital city of 2.6 million. The government played down the report, but even an unarmed missile could take out a city block.

The heightened alert also meant that troop leave was curtailed but not canceled. Soldiers could still be seen yesterday returning to the main island from the dozen or so islands and islets near China controlled by Taiwan.

The troop flow, however, was largely going the other direction as the Taiwanese military sought to shore up the sometimes poorly defended islands. Many military analysts believe that these islands could be grabbed or blockaded by China if it wanted to inflict psychological damage on Taiwan.

No estimates were available on the number of troops being added to the islands, but the marine general who commands the garrison on Wu-ch'iu was recently warned that his islet was the prime target of a mainland blockade, a military source told The Sun.

Chinese amphibious assault troops have not yet joined the exercises, which started yesterday with ships and planes active in the 6,600-square-mile box of ocean that Beijing has designated as a military exercise zone and warned countries to avoid.

About a dozen planes and ships kicked off the exercises, with planes dropping bombs in the water, according to Taiwanese intelligence sources. Taiwan responded to the mainland jets by scrambling its own fighters, the source said. The exercises have disrupted transportation, especially air travel to and from Hong Kong. About 300 flights a day will be affected during the eight-day exercises, including trans-Pacific flights to the United States and almost all flights from Hong Kong to Taiwan.

The exercises essentially block out a huge swath of the Taiwan Strait, a channel between 80 and 120 miles wide that separates mainland China from Taiwan.

By staging exercises in the strait, China cuts in half the reaction time that Taiwanese defense officials would have because they now don't know if a sudden concentration of Chinese forces means that an invasion is imminent or if Chinese forces are just practicing.

Despite the near-closure of international shipping lanes, Beijing reiterated its position yesterday that the United States must not become involved in the tensions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang said the situation was comparable to the U.S. civil war. Just as the Union didn't want Britain to side with the Confederacy, so too does China not want the United States to side with Taiwan.

Mr. Shen also criticized Washington's decision to send a second aircraft carrier battle group to the region, saying that it could inflame the desire for independence among Taiwanese by making them feel that the United States will shield them from China's wrath.

That, in fact, is what many seem to be thinking.

An opinion poll released yesterday by the China Times Express newspaper showed that 56 percent thought the United States would help if China attacked. Over 55 percent said China had the ability to attack Taiwan.

On a hopeful note, 64 percent said they were not worried that war would actually break out.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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