China's Missile 'Tests' Reveal A Potential US Can't Ignore


EVEN as tensions between Beijing and Taipei ease, China's recent firing of medium-range M-9 missiles near the island is raising alarm.

Not only has Beijing rocked the military balance across the Taiwan Strait, but a new Asian arms race could ensue, regional analysts say.

Weeks of live-fire war games and missile exercises by China failed to cow Taiwanese voters into opposing President Lee Teng-hui, who was easily reelected March 23 with nearly 54 percent of the vote.

But more important than the political impact intended by the surface-to-surface missiles was their capability to carry nuclear warheads and their accuracy, defense analysts say.

''The exercises were directed at the United States and Japan, essentially warning them that, if this turns into war, they will have a much tougher nut to crack than they thought,'' says Paul Godwin, a military expert at the National War College in Washington.

In launching the military exercises, Beijing claimed that Mr. Lee, a native Taiwanese, favors independence for the island. China claims Taiwan is a part of the mainland and threatens to invade if the island refuses to reunify.

The president, who enraged Beijing last summer by making a private visit to the United States, denies independence leanings but insists Communist-led China will have to turn to democracy first before reunification is possible. Taiwan and China were split by a civil war that ended in 1949.

Taiwan vulnerable

Unnerved by the accuracy of China's missile exercises, Taiwanese officials and analysts say the effectiveness of the island's defenses has been called into question. Many military observers have maintained that Taiwan's technological superiority and better trained troops could resist a larger Chinese invasion force.

As Taiwan is about to take delivery on dozens of new American and French warplanes, the island's military is no longer sure it can protect its naval and air facilities, analysts say. Taiwan is in the process of buying 150 US-made F-16 fighters and 60 French Mirage 2000 aircraft.

Last July, the China's People's Liberation Army sent six M-9 missiles crashing into the sea about 100 miles north of Taiwan. Just before last weekend's presidential election, China fired four missiles into target areas just off Keelung and Kaohsiung, Taiwan's major seaports.

More dangerous than disrupting commercial shipping is the threat to nearby Taiwanese air and naval bases, including the headquarters of Taiwan's growing antisubmarine fleet.

Asian defense experts, who previously considered Chinese missiles inaccurate, now estimate they can come within 500 yards of a target. China's pinpoint firing could also pose a threat to a huge aircraft bunker buried into a mountainside on the island, Taiwanese analysts said.

Weak defense

''The exercises had a big impact on the Taiwanese military. Taiwan is worried because our antimissile defenses are weak,'' says Yang Chih-heng, a military researcher at the private Institute for National Policy Research. China ''wanted to show it can shoot missiles anywhere.''

Western analysts still question the accuracy of China's M-class missiles, a variation of the Rus sian-made Scud missile used during the Gulf War, but admit it poses a heightened threat.

''If you fire enough of them, you could take out a naval facility or air force base. Open runways are now susceptible to missile attack,'' says Mr. Godwin, the American expert. ''China has been working very hard on the accuracy of its strategic weapons systems.''

Taiwan is using alarm over Chinese missiles to push for American help in developing anti-missile defenses. Taipei military officials want to be included with other US allies in Asia in the proposed Theater Missile Defense system. The ''star-wars''-style system would use satellites to track and destroy incoming missiles.

Washington sent two aircraft -carrier battle groups to patrol the seas off Taiwan in the election run-up. But, worried about further angering China and fueling a regional arms race, American officials hesitate to supply Taiwan with more sophisticated weapons.

During an annual defense review in Washington last week, the US agreed to sell ''stinger'' anti-aircraft missiles, an advanced jet targeting and navigation system, and some electronic-warfare devices to Taiwan.

But requests for six submarines, air-to-surface missiles, and antisubmarine aircraft were turned down.

The US, which officially recognizes China but maintains informal diplomatic and military ties with Taiwan, says it is trying to maintain the military balance in the region and is pushing the two governments to negotiate.

Beijing's fear

China fears and vehemently opposes the antimissile-defense system as a challenge to its aspirations for a modern, world-class military. By selling advanced weapons to Taiwan, Washington is supporting the island's quest for independence, Beijing charges.

''I believe the US should know that such a sale of arms to Taiwan will only end up giving rise to a new round of the arms race in the region,'' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang says.

The latest series of Chinese military maneuvers that ended yesterday will not likely be the last, analysts predict.

New war games could be announced by China in coming weeks to keep up pressure and force Taiwan to the negotiating table. That raises fears of accidental hostilities along the military line of confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.

Some Taiwanese analysts think those exercises could come in the East China Sea, closer to Japan. Tokyo has become alarmed by China's missile threats and apparent readiness to use force to fulfill regional ambitions.

If frustrated in attempts to force Taiwan to back down, China could even seize one of the outlying Taiwan-controlled islands just off the Chinese coast, Taiwanese pessimists say. Those islands, the center of a military face-off in the late 1950s, are not covered by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the American law which requires the US to arm Taiwan so it can defend itself if attacked by China.''There will be no winners in a Taiwan Strait war,'' says Mr. Yang, the military analyst.

As a result, Taiwan's military is trying to maintain calm in the narrow strait dividing the island and the mainland. Before last week's election, Taiwan's military chief of staff, Luo Ben-li, offered public reassurances that the island does not favor independence.

Long dominated by mainlanders backing reunification, the Taiwanese military has often been at odds with Lee, who evicted many old mainland exiles from the ruling Nationalist Party. Although Lee has named his own men to top military posts, many middle-level officers share mainland fears that the president secretly backs independence and is provoking China by many of his actions.

''Many officers don't like Lee Teng-hui's ambiguous policy. They have been schooled in an atmosphere of anti-independence,'' says Lin Yufang, a Lee critic and an instructor at Taipei's Armed Forces University.

Still, the military will stand behind Taiwan's newly elected president, says Mr. Lin.

''They don't like Lee Teng-hui but they hate the Communists more,'' he says.

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