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China, Taiwan Step Up Sorties Over Strait as Tensions Rise

By John Pomfret and Steven Mufson
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Chinese and Taiwanese fighter jets have flown hundreds of sorties over the past three weeks along the center of the narrow strait of water that separates the two sides, in what analysts called the sharpest military escalation of tension in the area in three years.

One U.S. official called the Chinese sorties “saber rattling,” but as the jets have flown closer and closer to each other’s shores, the Clinton administration has become worried that the show of force could accidentally lead to actual conflict.

A U.S. official said that China, which rarely sends planes over the Taiwan Strait, has flown more than 100 sorties with three different types of aircraft, including advanced Sukhoi 27s recently acquired from Russia. Another senior administration official said that Taiwanese aircraft have flown a similar number of times and ventured over the center line of the strait, which is about 100 miles wide.

Tensions have flared since Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui infuriated Beijing on July 9 by saying he wanted to establish “special state-to-state” relations with China. Beijing perceived that as a rejection of the “one China” principle that has served for decades as the bedrock of security and a framework for negotiations between the two sides. Though Taiwan is a self-governing island of 23 million, Beijing is set on its eventual reunification with the Chinese mainland.

“We believe both sides would be well-advised to take precautions so as not to have an inadvertent incident that could escalate,” said a senior administration official. “If planes fly very near each other fully armed, even if they are not intended to actually engage, they certainly risk that something unintended could happen.”

In addition to tension in the sky, there was tension in the waters of the Taiwan Strait. On Saturday, Chinese police seized a Taiwanese cargo ship carrying rice, gasoline and food to troops on Matsu, a Taiwanese island and military outpost near the Chinese coast. The ship’s 10 crew members were detained and accused of smuggling.

Neither the United States, eager to repair relations with China after the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, nor Taiwan have publicized the flights.