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China May Increase Military Pressure Against Taiwan

By Jim Mann
Los Angeles Times
TAIPEI, Taiwan

The military exercises China is conducting this week may not be the last step in Beijing's pressure campaign against Taiwan, according to top officials and scholars here.

Experts sketch out two scenarios in which China could ratchet up the military pressure still further.

One would be to seize one of the many small islands now held by Taiwan just off China's coastline. The other would be to conduct a series of new exercises over the coming months in an effort to bring Taiwan to the negotiating table.

"They (Chinese leaders) need to come up with something to satisfy their objectives," says a worried Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taiwan think-tank that specializes in defense issues. "(Chinese President) Jiang Zemin does not want to come out of this empty-handed."

The immediate focus in Taiwan is on the island scenario. In the exercises this week, Chinese troops are supposed to practice amphibious landings on the Chinese island of Pingtan, just off China's coast in Fujian Province.

A tiny island called Wuchiu, held by Taiwan, is only about 10 miles away, and officials and analysts in Taiwan concede that it would be a relatively simple affair, in military terms, for Chinese troops to seize the island.

One of Taiwan's main newspapers, the China Times, reported Monday that troops had taken up positions on Wuchiu to defend against a possible beach assault by mainland forces. Military officials refused to comment on the report.

If they want to release their anger against us (Taiwan) just to humiliate us, they may take an island or islet," asserted Yu-ming Shaw, director of Taiwan's Institute of International Relations.

The islands held by Taiwan off China's coastline include Quemoy and Matsu, which were the centerpieces of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s.

Taiwan's offshore islands are not covered by the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. law that requires the United States to take unspecified action in response to any Chinese military actions against Taiwan.

In fact, throughout the 1950s, the United States tried to persuade Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to abandon the offshore islands, on grounds that they were virtually impossible to defend against Chinese attack. Chiang refused to do so, because he saw the islands as a stepping-stone toward regaining control of the Chinese mainland.

One defense official in Taiwan said in an interview Monday that it is conceivable China will attack a small island such as Wuchiu, seize it, and then move back away from it, just to send a signal to Taiwan of its military capabilities.

He pointed out that this scenario would be similar to the one China followed in early 1979, when it attacked Vietnam and then, after suffering significant casualties, retreated from the territory it had taken.

But some officials here believe China will not try to take an island, because of the high political cost for doing so. If it used force, he said, China would suffer significant damage to its relations with the United States, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The other way China could increase the pressure on Taiwan would be to schedule still more exercises after the current round is supposed to end on March 25.

Taiwan's elections will be held Saturday. The inauguration of the first popularly elected president will take place May 20. From March to May, China could conduct at least a few more rounds of exercises.

That would not only put the island under psychological strain, but also cause further impact to the economy, which is already suffering because of the tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

"This crisis is really brutal to our trade, to investment and to economic growth," said a senior policy advisor to President Lee Teng-hui, who asked not to be identified.

Taiwan has already had to spend billions of dollars in foreign-exchange reserves to stabilize prices on its stock exchange and to preserve the value of its currency, the new Taiwan dollar. A prolonged series of exercises would raise questions about how long the government can keep intervening in these markets.

And it would bring other economic problems as well - with a labor shortage, for example. Taiwan depends to some extent on workers from Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand. These workers might stop coming to Taiwan, or begin leaving the island for home, if the tensions continue.