BEIJING — DESPITE diplomatic overtures to ease the crisis across the Taiwan Strait, expanded Chinese war games beginning today are stirring new unease.
The latest maneuvers, planned to last until two days after Taiwan's March 23 presidential elections, are significant because they will bring Chinese military pressure closer to Taiwan's territory and to crucial sea lanes through the 125-mile-wide channel. China is boosting its military pressure as fears grow that the expanded war games could involve more Chinese troops and inflict more damage on the area's commerce. China, which claims Taiwan is a breakaway province, has mounted the military exercises to dampen independence fervor on the island.
At the same time, many Western analysts and officials still say a conflict is unlikely amid some tentative probes for compromise. In what they view as a hint that war is not imminent, China has called for faster economic development in Chinese provinces across from Taiwan and said political differences don't have to impede economic ties. For its part, Taiwan has suggested it might ease efforts to boost the island's international profile, such as seeking a seat in the United Nations, if China ends its show of force.
US plays a tempering role
The United States, which has dispatched two armadas to the region to temper tensions and check Chinese pressure, hailed the end of the week-long Chinese missile tests last Friday.
But the presence of US warships is provocative, China says. One American aircraft carrier, the USS Independence, is already in waters near Taiwan; a second, the USS Nimitz, is en route from the Persian Gulf.
"If someone makes a show of force in the Taiwan Strait, that will not be helpful, but will make the situation all the more complicated," Chinese Premier Li Peng said yesterday. "The Chinese government will in no way accept the practice of one country imposing its views on another."
During the last two weeks, China has fired four unarmed M-9 missiles into target areas near Taiwan's major ports. At the same time, live-fire missile exercises and bombing, due to end Wednesday, have been under way over the southern entrance to the Taiwan Strait.
China has been trying to wither Taiwanese support for incumbent President Lee Teng-hui, the election front-runner and China's main target. Both China and Taiwan share the goal of reunifying the two Chinas, but Beijing fears Mr. Lee is leading Taiwan out of diplomatic isolation and toward independence.
Western analysts predict China will keep up the military pressure after the election, although a conciliatory tone from the Taiwanese president could lower the temperature, analysts say.
"The Chinese will be looking for a major statement of concession [after the election] from the newly elected leader," says a Western diplomat.
The new exercises, involving ground, air, and naval services, will come within about 10 miles of Wuchiu and Matsu, two Taiwanese islands near the Chinese coast. In 1958, China shelled Matsu and Quemoy, another Taiwan-controlled island on the mainland's doorstep, prompting the United States to send warships to defend Taiwan.
As part of the drills, Chinese troops have also moved into sections of the Chinese-held Pingtan Island in what could be a model for an invasion of Taiwan, Taiwanese defense analysts say.
The newest round of exercises will shift the military pressure farther north along China's coast and nearer the more vulnerable northern end of the Taiwan Strait, Western analysts say.
Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and other Asian nations depend on international sea and air links through East Asia for trade, energy supplies, and industrial materials. The move has raised concerns that China will try to intensify its blockade-style tactics and deepen damage to Taiwan's economy. Already, the exercises have disrupted air flights, fishing, and shipping in the area, causing costly diversions, Western analysts say.
"Asia is looking to the US to maintain free movement through international waters," adds an Asian analyst.
Reaction in Taiwan
Taiwanese newspapers report panicked investors heavily withdrawing savings from banks and converted millions of dollars into US currency. The government spent $1.5 billion over the past two weeks to prop up the sagging stock market.
Taiwan military analysts say that Beijing could take other provocative actions. China could send warplanes across the center line of the Taiwan Strait, causing Taiwan to respond and scramble its own Air Force. A blockade of one of the smaller islands in the narrow passage would also be provocative to Taiwan, analysts say.
Most worrying would be if China brought additional naval forces out for war games and stepped up pressure on the northern end of the Taiwan Strait. That could close off the passage, disrupt major shipping lanes, and prompt retaliation from Japan and other Asian countries. China could also designate new missile target areas, deterring ships and fishermen from using the narrow channel.
"China would then be setting the stage for this to escalate into a bigger crisis," says an Asian diplomat in Beijing.