Risks in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan

In talks with China's president next week, Clinton will try to defuse

The upsurge in tensions between China and Taiwan appears to have put China's political and military hierarchy in a strategic bind.

Having threatened for months to attack Taiwan for what they decry as a move toward independence, China's communist rulers may find it hard to back down without humiliating losses of political face and national prestige.

But their options for action, ranging from blockading the island democracy to launching missiles to an invasion, carry grave dangers, including hostilities with the United States, analysts and officials warn.

Persuading China not to act is expected to top President Clinton's agenda for talks next week with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in New Zealand. Despite signs that Beijing wants to mend ties hurt by NATO's bombing of its Belgrade embassy, his work will be cut out for him.

"It's a Chinese tradition that the leader who allows the division of China will fall or does not last long," says Bates Gill of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "There is this weight of history that impels the leadership to respond to the problems they see on Taiwan."

Yet even a limited Chinese use of force could trigger clashes with Taiwan that would roil regional stability and global markets and risk a Sino-US conflict.

Possibility of war

The latter danger loomed in August 1996, when Chinese missile firings in the Taiwan Strait and war games prompted the dispatch of two US aircraft-carrier battle groups. It was the biggest such deployment in the Pacific since the Vietnam War.

Because of the huge risks and Taiwan's own formidable defenses, most analysts discount a Chinese invasion.

"An amphibious invasion would be a highly risky and most unlikely option," says a Pentagon report presented to Congress earlier this year.

But US officials and experts worry that Beijing may be prepared to absorb the political and economic costs of lesser uses of force to bludgeon Taipei into reaffirming the principle of "one China."

"The Chinese have historically shown themselves to be highly calculating when it comes to moving up the escalation ladder," says Dr. Gill. "That doesn't leave out the possibility of mistakes and miscalculations."

For the US, fashioning a reply to any Chinese action would involve danger-laden choices as well. At the very least, Mr. Clinton would be compelled by election politics and a pro-Taiwan Congress to expand defense ties with Taipei, including arms sales, at the cost of a long-term souring of Sino-US ties.

"We would not really have many happy options," says Douglas Paal, a former National Security Council official who heads the Asia Pacific Policy Center, a research institute in Washington.

China began issuing its threats after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui called in July for "special state-to-state" bilateral relations. Beijing denounced the remark as a repudiation of the "one China" principle and a move toward declaring independence.

Any retaliation by Beijing would be to demonstrate its willingness to use force to deter such a step, experts say. But herein lies Beijing's challenge: The measures would have to be strong enough to cow Taiwan, but insufficient to rouse the US.

It could begin with seizing Taiwanese-owned ships and other steps to squeeze maritime and air corridors to the island, experts say. They point out that China commandeered a Taiwanese vessel after Mr. Lee's remark.

There have been numerous reports in pro-Beijing media of major Chinese war games in coastal areas opposite Taiwan, although US officials say they have seen little evidence of such. Still, the next level of escalation could be the staging of such exercises as occurred in 1996, experts say.

As in 1996, these could also be accompanied by missile firings into the Taiwan Strait that would effectively close shipping lanes to Taiwan. Such firings would likely hurt the island's economy, including sending its stock market into a dive that could affect bourses across the region.

This approach would be "intended to send a specific signal to Taiwan that China has the missile capability to shut down Taiwanese ports and to attack Taiwanese military installations," says Evan Medeiros, an expert on the Chinese military at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "That would have a major economic impact."

Invade or blockade?

The laying of mines near Taiwan's ports could further enforce what would effectively be a blockade of the island by Chinese submarines.

Some experts worry that China could go further and seize an island claimed by Taiwan. This would significantly increase the risk of a war and US intervention.

Some of the islands host small Taiwanese army units and radar facilities, while others are protected by large numbers of troops and bristle with underground bunkers, docks, and antiship and antiaircraft defenses. A Chinese attempt to seize one would almost certainly ignite clashes.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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