A Loose Noose Falls on Taiwan

China missile tests to impose de facto blockade of island

FOR one week starting tomorrow, Taiwan will get a taste of what life would be like under a Chinese military blockade.

Just short of two weeks before Taiwan's landmark March 23 presidential election, China will begin a new round of war games aimed at pressuring an increasingly independence-minded Taiwanese electorate and influencing the vote.

Although the Chinese military exercises were expected, they will brush closer to the island than those held last year. China's newest show of military muscle will involve ground-to-ground guided-missile tests in the waters off Taiwan's two major ports - Kaohsiung on the island's southwest coast and Keelung on the northeast.

In announcing the military exercises, China warned ships and aircraft away from the test areas, an international practice. The Chinese military is also expected to mount concurrent amphibious drills involving up to 150,000 men, a moderate-size force, Western analysts say.

Last year, an enraged China launched two series of war games after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui made an unofficial visit to the United States in June. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province of the mainland and fears Mr. Lee's crusade to lift Taiwan's stature internationally is pushing the island toward independence.

Ships and airlines will be able to skirt the test areas, analysts say. But the exercises will lower international traffic, seriously disrupt shipping through the Taiwan Strait, and affect the export-oriented economy. The ports of Kaohsiung and Keelong handle 70 percent of the island's trade. Taiwan's stock market, which dropped dramatically last year after China's military displays, again plummeted after the announcement.

Playing mind games

''This is a psychological warfare campaign,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing. ''This conveys their capability to do a blockade and show what a blockade would look like.''

China's main strategy is to keep Taiwan in line with a possible threat of a blockade. Beijing has also threatened to invade Taiwan if the island declares independence.

But Western analysts discount China's ability, even with its larger military, to mount and sustain an invasion against Taiwan's advanced Western-supplied and more agile defenses.

Although China has not disclosed test details, the Chinese military is expected to fire domestically produced M-class missiles from the mainland rather than shorter-range ship-to-ship missiles. Those weapons have ranges up to 300 miles and are patterned after American Scud missiles used in the Gulf war.

The test areas are as close as 15 nautical miles from the ports and could pose a serious threat if a missile goes awry. To the northeast, missiles could even fly over part of the island to hit the test target. During missile launches last summer, one of the six that were fired flew wide off the target.

''It's highly unlikely that China would be so provocative,'' says an Asian analyst. ''The main pressure they want to exert is political.''

Indeed, China's main target for months has been Lee, the Taiwanese president and the current election front-runner.

By frightening the Taiwanese electorate and withering Lee's support, Beijing hopes to undercut the president's mandate for promoting independence if he wins. Lee's ruling Nationalist Party, forced to take refuge on Taiwan in 1949 from the victorious Communists, supports reunification with the mainland but first demands democratic change in China.

In February, the Taiwanese leader urged the mainland Communists to sit down and talk. But China refused. This week, Beijing urged Taiwanese voters to oppose Lee and once again vilified him in the official press for ''attempting to split China in the garb of democracy.'' Chinese officials warned the US, which protested the proximity of the exercises to Taiwan, not to interfere.

''He can unceasingly change his color and hide himself. But Lee Teng-hui's nature to split the country will not change,'' said the official New China News Agency.

Lee responded on state television. ''Taiwanese people should unify,'' he said. ''We should show them [China] whether Taiwan wants to be bullied by them. Don't be scared by these threats.''

The stakes for China

Western diplomats say a Chinese blockade of Taiwan could trigger a suspension of trade and investment by developed countries. It could also provoke a military response from the US, and possibly Japan and South Korea.

Recognizing those risks, China knows it has been effective in influencing Taiwan's electorate without dampening the economy. Last December, the ruling Nationalist majority shrank in legislative elections, partly in reaction to Chinese saber-rattling.

''It's a dangerous game,'' says a Western analyst. ''They want to demonstrate that they mean what they say,'' he says, citing costly military campaigns China launched in the past. ''They have shown that they are ready to go in at great expense and pay the price.''

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