China warns U.S. to keep ships away Foreign show of force in Taiwan Strait will not be helpful, Li says

U.S. carrier is off coast

Chinese maneuvers are called 'reckless' and 'provocative'

March 18, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING - Establishing the threshold for a new round of military escalation in the tense week leading up to Taiwan's first direct presidential election, Chinese Premier Li Peng warned the United States yesterday to keep its warships out of the Taiwan Strait.

"If some foreign force makes a show of force in the Taiwan Strait, that will not be helpful, but will make the situation all the more complicated," Mr. Li said during a news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The U.S. carrier Independence is positioned off Taiwan's eastern coast to monitor Chinese military maneuvers. A second carrier, the Nimitz, is en route from the Persian Gulf and is expected to arrive in the area this week.

In December, the Nimitz, accompanied by other warships, led the first passage by a U.S. carrier group through the 100-mile-wide strait between the mainland and Taiwan since 1979, when the United States cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized Beijing as the only government of China.

In Washington yesterday, Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, refused to say whether U.S. warships intend to defy Mr. Li's warning and enter the strait.

"There's nothing further to be said about where we will deploy those vessels," Mr. Panetta said on the CBS news program "Face the Nation." "That's something I'm not going to tell you or the country at this point."

Mr. Panetta described China's military maneuvers near Taiwan as "reckless and frankly provocative."

In contrast, he described the administration's reaction to the Chinese military activity as "prudent cautious and very clear."

China's Mr. Li did not specify what "complications" would arise if the United States were to send any of its ships into the strait.

But specialists on the Chinese military predict that it would lead to an expanded or extended wave of military exercises near Taiwan or the firing of more M-9 ballistic missiles at targets near the island.

For more than a week, China has been conducting air and naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait southwest of Taiwan. The Chinese have fired four unarmed M-9 missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, at targets just off the Taiwan coast.

The naval exercises had been scheduled to end Wednesday.

But last week, China dashed hopes for an easing of tensions when it announced another set of exercises in the Haitan island group off the mainland coast, which are set to begin today and conclude next Monday, two days after Saturday's presidential election.

In Taiwan, the influential newspaper China Times, quoting military sources, reported yesterday that the People's Liberation Army forces might take advantage of high tide today to practice amphibious landings on an island only 11 miles from the Taiwan-held Matsu islands.

China can be expected to televise the beach landings on its evening news, easily monitored by satellite in Taiwan.

The purpose of amphibious landings, said Hong Kong-based military analyst Tai Ming Chueng, is to present them to the Taiwan population as a mock invasion of Taiwan.

China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has accused Taiwan's leaders, especially President Lee Teng-hui, of seeking to make the island, with a population of 21 million, an independent state.

In a campaign speech yesterday, Mr. Lee, who is heavily favored to win the election, accused China of practicing "state terrorism" with the military exercises and menacing missile firings.

"China's power comes from guns, and it relies on its guns to maintain its power," Mr. Lee said in a televised speech. "The biggest threat to its power is the democratic election across the Taiwan Strait."

Despite the defiant talk of Mr. Lee and other political leaders, the Chinese military posturing clearly has spooked some of Taiwan's population.

Several hundred civilians living on some of the islands near the latest military exercises have been evacuated. Travel agencies on Taiwan have recently offered "anti-missile" tour packages to the United States and other destinations as airline officials report a substantial increase in outgoing traffic.

Taiwan television stations aired film of the island evacuations yesterday, but also noted that several residents were choosing to stay.

"We are leaving for Taiwan to escape disaster," said a schoolgirl from the island of Tong Chu, near Matsu and just 10 nautical miles from the area of the Chinese exercises.

Heavily fortified Matsu, off the Chinese port of Fuzhou, was to serve as the Nationalists' staging area to retake the mainland after they retreated to Taiwan in 1949.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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