A dangerous game over Taiwan

Beijing escalates its war exercises as the island's election nears

LUCIE McNEILL March 25 1996

A dangerous game over Taiwan

Beijing escalates its war exercises as the island's election nears

LUCIE McNEILL March 25 1996

A dangerous game over Taiwan



Beijing escalates its war exercises as the island's election nears

Its white sandy beaches, verdant hills and picturesque fishing villages would make Quemoy an idyllic resort—were it not for its unfortunate location. Sit-

ting just 1,500 m off China’s southeastern coast at low tide, the Taiwanese-controlled cluster of islands has long been an armed camp. The shoreline bristles with spikes to foil landing attempts. Gunners atop camouflaged watchtowers stand ready to train their anti-aircraft batteries on enemy planes. And last week, platoons of soldiers in combat gear patrolled roads and beaches on high alert. Yet even as tension between China and Taiwan reached levels not seen since the mainland rained a 44-day barrage of shells on Quemoy in 1958, killing 600, few of the islets’ 30,000 residents seemed alarmed. “There’s no feeling of war here,” snorted fisherman Lee Hehou, 66, as he squatted by the roadside, cleaning his catch. ‘We’ve gone through so . much in the past, this is nothing in comparison. We’re not afraid in the least.”

That theme was echoed by defiant Taiwanese officials from President Lee Tenghui on down. But there was no doubting that the island was facing one of its most serious tests since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled the mainland at the close of China’s civil

war in 1949 and proceed-

ed to turn Taiwan into an anti-Communist bastion and an economic dynamo.

From March 8 to 15, China conducted ballistic missile tests in two zones only 30 km off Taiwan’s north and south coasts. Then, on March 12, the Chinese military launched eight days of live-ammunition war games off Fujian province just south of

Quemoy. They involved 150,000 troops, warships and fighter aircraft, effectively sealing off half of the southern approach to the Taiwan Strait. And as those exercises continued,

Beijing announced a new

seven-day set of manoeuvres beginning on March 18, this time farther north and the closest yet to Taiwan’s coast Taken together, they were by far the most threatening in a series of military exercises an angry China began holding in the region last July, soon after Washington reversed policy and allowed Lee to visit the United States.

The standoff quickly became a test, too, between the world’s current superpower and a superpower-to-be. The United States, worried about what it called China’s “risky and reckless” actions, dispatched two aircraft carriers and 10 support ships to the area—one of the largest concentrations of U.S. naval power in Asian waters since the

Vietnam War. Secretary of State Warren Christopher predicted “grave consequences” if China tried to use force against Taiwan. Washington deliberately avoided spelling out what would trigger U.S. intervention, or what form it would take. President Bill Clinton found himself balancing the conflicting demands of a growing proTaiwanese lobby, businessmen anxious to maintain access to China’s huge market, and the possibility that a blowup could affect his re-election chances. “It is very delicate for the President,” a White House official told Maclean’s. “He is trying to calm both sides.”

China remained adamant. President Jiang Zemin told delegates attending the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament: “Our policy on Taiwan is peaceful reunification, but we will not renounce the use of force.” Pentagon officials, however, said the Chinese had assured Washington that they “do not intend to take any military action against Taiwan.”

Chinese leaders admitted scheduling the war games to coincide with Taiwan’s first democratic presidential elections on March 23, which the latest exercises will span. Beijing is clearly bent on scaring voters away from Lee, 73, who it believes fa-

vors independence for the island despite his public support for eventual reunification with the mainland. Unbowed, Lee told an election rally: “The 21 million people of Taiwan should be confident despite the storm and, with dignity, choose the first democratically elected president in China’s 5,000-year history.”

For all their defiance, Taiwanese authorities were taking no chances. They dusted off emergency plans in case of attack, organizing volunteers into medical, firefighting, food distribution and engineering teams. Throughout the island, bomb shelters that had not been used in years were cleared of debris. The preparations gave many Taiwanese a serious case of the jitters. Older people stockpiled rice, while others hoarded gold and U.S. dollars. Banks ran out of greenbacks and had to fly in planeloads of large bills from the United States. Bookings for offshore flights doubled. Even before this crisis, emigration was popular, especially among wealthier, better-educated young Taiwanese. Their favorite destination is Canada: since 1993, more than 7,000 a year have moved to the country, primarily to Vancouver. The flow is bound to increase, despite Canada’s own crisis over secession. “Frankly, I’m envious of Quebec,” said Stanley Yen, a wealthy Taiwanese hotel magnate who owns the Landis Hotel & Suites in Vancouver. “People there express themselves without threats of missiles from Canada.”

Given the mistrust most Taiwanese feel towards the mainland, the touch of nerves was understandable. Latest polls indicated the majority believe that war will not break out intentionally. But Western diplomats said it would be easy for China to misfire a missile, leading to retaliation. “If anyone can make a mistake, it’s this lot,” said a Beijing-based ambassador. “It would be like throwing a match in a fireworks factory,” added a veteran Western diplomat.

China is flexing its military muscles over Taiwan because the leadership feels the “integrity of the motherland” is at stake. ‘Taiwan is already an independent nation in reality, and China fears it’s just slipping away, especially with these democratic elections,” said the diplomat. That is unthinkable to Beijing leaders, who regard it as a solemn duty to keep together a country that has often become fragmented in its long dynastic history. “There is no more serious and emotional issue in China than sovereignty over Taiwan,” said Banning Garret, an Asian affairs expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “No Chinese leader could stay in power if he allowed Taiwan to declare total independence. It is the one issue on which there is unity in China.”

It is also a handy club in the current power struggle as ailing supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, 91, continues to weaken. Many

observers believe that old-guard Maoist generals are calling the shots on Taiwan, talking once again about the People’s Liberation Army’s “holy task to safeguard national unity”—and effectively sidelining President Jiang and other moderate figures. “By staging these exercises, the weak leadership is trying to please the Chinese military and secret police,” said Jonathan Adelman, Denver-based author of Symbolic War, a study of the Chinese use of force. That has fuelled worries that cooler heads might not prevail. Senior military leaders have often said they would rather destroy Taiwan and take over a smouldering ruin than let it go independent.

So far, China’s attempt to use military might to intimidate Taiwanese voters is backfiring. The most recent polls indicate that, for the first time, more people support independence than formal reunification, although the vast majority still favors the status quo. This means not disputing that Taiwan is part of China, while quietly getting on with the business of running the island as an independent entity. André Laliberté, Canadian political scientist living in Taipei, said reunification still has powerful emotional appeal. “But the present Chinese threat is forcing people to confront the myth with the reality. They’re getting weary of China and are asking themselves: ‘Do we want to reunify so soon with these people? Are they really our brothers if they treat us like this?’ ”

Just what China hopes to accomplish politically is unclear. In December’s parliamentary elections, a lesser series of Chinese military exercises appeared to drive many voters to a party that backed friendlier relations with China. But there is little scope for that scenario this time. President Lee’s main rival is Peng Ming-min of the Democratic Progressive Party, which backs outright independence. Another, Lin Yang-kang, is an old-guard anti-Communist who favors reunification, but not on Beijing’s terms. The last, Chen Li-an, supports friendly relations with China, but is commonly regarded as a quixotic dreamer. Lee’s government has been under fire for corruption and incompetence, but now most analysts expect him to win big— thanks to the outrage over China’s menacing manoeuvres and vitriolic broadsides.

Beijing has denounced Lee as “the sinner of all millennia,” a “prostitute” and a “schemer” destined for “the dustbin of history.” At the root of China’s fury is Lee’s aggressive foreign policy. Taipei has lavished generous “gifts” on poor nations to get them to officially recognize Taiwan; Senegal was the latest to succumb last fall. There are now 31 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but Lee wants more. Even more brazen was his offer of $1.4 billion to the debt-plagued United Nations if Taiwan were granted a seat. Most

members—including Canada, which recognizes only the mainland—oppose the idea.

The last straw for Beijing was Lee’s so-called private visit last June to his alma mater, Cornell University—the firstever visit to the United States by a Taiwanese president, and a move viewed by Beijing as the most blatant step yet towards official recogni-

tion and independence. What particularly galled Beijing were U.S. assurances that Lee would not be granted a visa, only to have that change at the last minute following intense congressional pressure. ‘The flip-flop made China very angry,” said Michael Kau, a professor of political science at Brown University. “They lost face.”

Lee’s critics in Taiwan have attacked him for unnecessarily provoking Beijing. But Kau, a native Taiwanese who also heads a Taipei-based think-tank, contends that the president has largely been driven by popular sentiment. “National dignity, the value of the Taiwan passport, Taiwan’s push for admission to the United Nations—those are all election-generated issues, spilling over into the international arena,” he notes. “Lee is under a lot of domestic pressure on this.”

Balance of forces TAIWAN CHIN/ Armed forces ICBMs Medium-range missiles 0 Fighter aircraft Tanks Major warships Destroyers Submarines *Taiwan will begin receiving 150 advanced F-16 fighters from the United States next year.

Avoidable or not, the current tensions are creating havoc for Taiwan’s exportdriven economy. The missile tests and war games have been conducted close to Keelung and Kaohsiung, the large ports that handle 70 per cent of Taiwan’s trade. Financial markets have been badly hit. The government is spending part of its massive foreign-exchange reserves to prop up the currency and prevent a crash on the stock market. Still, share prices have dropped 17 per cent since Beijing began turning up the heat last summer.

China is getting hurt as well. Taiwanese investment on the mainland tops $30 billion, while cross-strait trade has mushroomed to more than $28 billion. While few of the 30,000 Taiwan companies on the mainland have announced they are pulling out, new

projects in 1995 were down 48 per cent compared with 1994. Observers say Taiwanese entrepreneurs began getting cold feet after the first of last summer’s military exercises. Among them was Hzu Chungking, president of Taipei-based Great China Airlines, the largest customer of Canadianbuilt de Havilland Dash 8-400 aircraft. “I’m not

making any changes in my current holdings, either in Taiwan or Canada,” he said. “But I’m quite sure I won’t be investing on the mainland for the time being.”

For now, China seems to be shrugging off any downside to its hawkish stance, including rising anxieties in nearby Hong Kong over the way Beijing is handling the crisis. The official Chinese media have faithfully trumpeted the party line, and few Beijing residents care to contradict it. A truck driver named Xu boasted: ‘We’d win for sure if we fought Taiwan, even if the States helped them.”

In fact, few Western military analysts agree with that view, given the island’s strong air defences. Most doubt that war will break out. Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that China, despite superior numbers of arms and people, does not have what it takes to launch an invasion of Taiwan, and that intelligence reveals the Chinese military is “not gathering the kind of forces and the kind of support that you would need to conduct that kind of operation.” Even so, most regional players, from Japan to Singapore, support the beefed-up American naval presence. “If China is allowed to proceed unchallenged,” said one diplomat, “the power vacuum in the region would be filled by China. That’s too destabilizing in East Asia and the Pacific.”

Yet despite the firm U.S. show of support, Washington is unhappy with Lee’s approach. Many officials now regret granting his visa last year. “At this point,” said an administration source last week, “we are talking very strongly, but very quietly, to the Taiwanese leadership and telling it to get back to the status quo. They have got to back away from this independence movement. The United States does not support it.” Once the Taiwanese election is over, many diplomatic China hands believe Lee should mothball his recognition campaign. “Everybody knows Taiwan is, de facto, independent,” said one. “What more do they want?” China will be watching very closely how Taiwan— and its voters—answer that question.