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China Says It Will Conclude Military Exercises Next Week

By Rone Tempest
Los Angeles Times

Satisfied that a threatening message about independence has been sent to the Taiwan electorate and political leadership, China on Thursday said its military exercises and missile tests in the Taiwan Strait will not be extended beyond next week's presidential election on the island.

A foreign ministry spokesman announced Thursday that China will conclude its naval and air force exercises off the coast as scheduled Wednesday, three days before Taiwan's first direct presidential election. Test firings of medium-range M-9 missiles to target zones near the Taiwan coast are scheduled to end Friday.

"The exercises will come to an end as scheduled," foreign ministry spokesmen Shen Guofang informed reporters. However, Shen stopped short of ruling out new military activities in the 100-mile-wide strait at some future date.

The announcement was one of several simultaneous signals sent by the Beijing leadership, including statements by the country's top military leadership and a report in a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, that appeared to be aimed at calming fears of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

In a statement before the National People's Congress session in Beijing, China's top general, Liu Huaqing, said the massive naval and air exercises that began on Monday in the waters separating Taiwan and the mainland were "purely for the sake of defense."

"China will neither invade any other country nor join in the arms race even when it lays claim to a greater national strength in the future," said Liu, China's most senior general and vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao, often used by the Beijing government to disseminate its views, published an interview with a senior Chinese diplomat reassuring Hong Kong residents worried about a military conflict between the mainland and Taiwan.

"Hong Kong people need not to worry. They should continue with their work," said Zhang Junsheng, deputy director of the Chinese Xinhua news agency bureau, which serves as China's de facto embassy in Hong Kong.

The Chinese peace signals came two days after senior Taiwanese officials told the Los Angeles Times they are ready to upgrade relations with the mainland after the March 23 presidential election. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Fredrick Chien and Defense Minister Ma Ying-jeou said that if China halts its military activities in the strait, Taiwan will push for new talks.

"Everyone realizes that we should make relations closer and more cooperative," said Ma. Although the heightened military tensions have raised alarms in Washington and other capitals, some more optimistic analysts have characterized Taiwan's presidential elections and China's military exercises as an elaborate chess game leading to a more stable political and economic relationship.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Shen said China's decision to stick to its announced military timetable will remain intact even if Nationalist Party leader Lee Teng-hui is elected as Taiwan's first popularly chosen president. Lee, 73, who has been accused by the Beijing leadership of conducting a secret campaign seeking independence for Taiwan, is heavily favored to win the vote.

Several Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers, quoting sources in Beijing, had reported that China planned to extend or enlarge its military exercises if it is not satisfied with the Taiwan election results.

However, in response to a reporter's question about Lee Teng-hui's probable victory, Shen affirmed the right of the Taiwanese electorate to choose its leadership.

"The people of Taiwan should be able to choose by their own will the candidates of their choice," Shen said. "Our real concern is whether the Taiwanese authorities will give up their two-China policy. No matter what the outcome of the election, Taiwan will remain part of China and its leaders will just be leaders of a Chinese region."

The statement is consistent with the mainland China position that Taiwan is a province of China - albeit the only "province" to hold open and free elections.

China's live-ammunition military exercises, involving as many as 40 People's Liberation Army warships, have raised alarms in neighboring Asian countries and panicked regional stock markets in Taiwan and Hong Kong.