Political storm brews over Taiwan

The brinkmanship between Taiwan and China is now taking place in the air, on the airwaves, and in cyberspace.

But so far, the jet fighters playing "chicken" over the Taiwan Strait and the defacing of government Web sites are essentially an escalation of the political feints that have been going on for most of the past half-century.

Still, there's an uneasiness here. Is this merely campaign posturing ahead of next spring's presidential elections - or something more? Everyone from ordinary citizens to defense analysts wonders whether the mock battles could lead to a regional arms race, and even trigger another Chinese civil war. Would the US intervene to protect tiny, democratic Taiwan from the world's last Communist giant?

"I don't fear war as much as I do life under Communist rule," says a young arts company manager in Taiwan's capital, who asked not to be identified. "Of course I don't want to see a new civil war erupt, but if it does, I will not be afraid to fight," she adds.

Many here say they hope the threat of renewed conflict with Beijing will mirror the course of typhoon Sam this past weekend: it swerved and narrowly missed Taiwan.

The political hurricane that now threatens Taipei appeared when Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui said July 9 that Beijing should treat Taiwan as a "state" in negotiations over the future of cross-strait ties.

Before Mr. Lee's bombshell announcement, both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed they were part of a single China, but each claimed to be the country's legitimate rulers following the informal close of the war in 1949.

Andrew Yang, a defense analyst who heads a think tank affiliated with Taiwan's Defense Ministry, says Lee's new two-state formula is being perceived by Beijing "as a serious step toward independence." Beijing, in turn, "is going to speed up its defense preparations to formulate a military response." Taiwan has lived under the threat of attack since China's Nationalist leaders fled to Taiwan after their defeat by Chairman Mao Zedong's Red Army.

While the mainland's defense forces far surpass the island's in terms of numbers - China's Army has more than 2.5 million soldiers, for example, compared with fewer than 400,000 for Taiwan - some of China's weapons are decades old. Beijing boasts 10,000 tanks compared with Taipei's 1,500; 3,000 defense aircraft against Taiwan's 500; and more than 60 submarines, in contrast with the four subs that protect the island. China is believed to have about 400 nuclear weapons, while the head of Taiwan's small but radical Independence Party on Sunday called for the island to develop its own nuclear forces.

Taiwan has acquired some of the West's most advanced military equipment, including 60 French Mirage jet fighters, 150 US-made F-16 aircraft, and batteries of American Patriot missiles.

Analyst Yang says despite the recent grounding of Taiwan's fleet of F-16s following four crashes, its Air Force still patrols the middle line of the Taiwan Strait around the clock. "We are still capable of defending ourselves against a conventional attack from the mainland. But in terms of China's unconventional weapons like ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons," Taiwan could not protect itself.

Taiwan was shielded from a threatened Chinese invasion by a defense pact with the US until 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. In a series of agreements governing official ties with China, Beijing pressured the US to limit the quantity and technological sophistication of arms sold to Taiwan. Beijing pledged to use peaceful means in pursuing reunification, and the US indicated it would supply Taipei only with enough defensive weapons to ward off a forcible annexation by the mainland.

That agreement is in danger of unraveling as tensions heat up between Taiwan and the mainland, and as the US is being dragged into the conflict, says Chas Freeman, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

Despite its loose security ties with Taiwan, Washington has vowed not to support independence for the island. Beijing has threatened to invade if Taiwan attempts to formally secede, and the US maintains a policy of "strategic ambiguity" over whether it would defend Taipei if the mainland launched an unprovoked attack. The Clinton administration is urging both sides to open peace talks and avoid warplane sorties across the Taiwan Strait.

Wang Chien-shien, former chairman of Taiwan's pro-reunification New Party, says "I don't believe the US will support us by sending troops here, following the lessons of the Vietnam War." He and other politicians here say that Lee may be trying to provoke China into a confrontation in order to persuade the US and Japan to join a tripartite alliance with Taiwan. Yang says Lee's recent call for Taiwan to be included under an anti-missile defense umbrella being researched by Tokyo and Washington is part of a hope "to create a military alliance with the US and Japan."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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