Beijing growing restless over Taiwan

China is conducting aggressive war exercises in the Taiwan Strait.

For the next few weeks on a spit of land called Dongshan along the Taiwan Strait, a Chinese military force will practice making offensive strikes.

The exercise, which began last week, resembles what Chinese analysts say a military strike on Taiwan would look like: commando raids and elements of a so-called "decapitation strike" on Taipei, including night bombing runs - something the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has not practiced before in a coastal exercise.

Here in China's capital, a shift is on: Taiwan, China's geo-strategic Helen of Troy, is again being targeted by the PLA and by Party propagandists. For nearly three years, China has practiced mostly pin-stripe diplomacy on Taiwan, an approach often called "soft offensive."

The strategy was to be mild and reasonable in order that Taiwanese might vote Chen Shui-bian out of office. China's top leaders, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, spoke often of a "peaceful unification" with Taiwan. Wen Jiabao in the Oval Office last December spoke of "he wei gui," a profound Confucian idea that translates, "nothing is more valuable than peace."

Yet quietly late last fall as it became clear that President Chen could be reelected, and then more boldly after March 20 when Chen was returned to office - a Beijing brand of sound and fury began to escalate.

State media are at volume levels not heard since 2000, the last time Chen, who desires a separate identity for Taiwan, was elected. Newspapers show Chinese frigates shooting rockets. They list Chinese weapons that "Americans are afraid of" - including the mobile-launched long range Dongfeng-31 and Dongfeng-4 rockets. Party newspaper People's Daily issued an angry broadside Tuesday on a July 15 resolution in Congress supporting the Taiwan Relations Act. The law allows US weapons sales to Taiwan for defensive purposes so long as the island is threatened. People's Daily argued that Congress "fabricated a Chinese military threat in order to justify arms sales to Taiwan - a blatant intervention into China's internal affairs."

In 2001 the Bush administration did approve $1.8 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. But few of the weapons systems, including sub-hunting aircraft, and destroyers, have actually been purchased by Taipei. Chinese media however often present pending arms sales as a new deal.

"We haven't heard this sound for a long time," says a Western scholar here. "For several years no 'message' has been sent to Taiwan, the US, or the world about Chinese military capability across the straits."

A new level of anxiety about Taiwan in Beijing is reportedly one reason National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice came here July 8 to signal, in her words, "what [the US] can and can't do"to cooperate with China. Analysts argue that an element of the ongoing US naval Summer Pulse '04 exercises that involve deploying seven carrier groups worldwide has protection of the Taiwan Straits as part of its message. (It is incorrect, as reported in Chinese and US media, that all seven carrier groups will gather in the West Pacific and that Taiwan is participating in the exercise.)

One reason for Beijing's sudden new threatening talk about Taiwan is an analysis at the highest echelons of government here that Taiwan is indeed rapidly consolidating a separate identity in a manner and at a speed that is impossible for Beijing to reverse. Chen's victory on March 20 was a wake up call here. That both major parties in Taiwan pushed a pro-Taiwan identity message contradicted years of party rhetoric that pro-Taiwan feelings were limited to a small group of disgruntled dissidents. Even Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's incoming leader, stated after a controversial trip to the island this month that "people in Taiwan have a stronger self-identification as Taiwanese" than in 1992.

Some analysts feel China's military exercises, aggressive media, and pointed diplomatic campaigns are all a "safety valve" for internal pressures among party leaders who have long felt they must "deliver" Taiwan, as one put it.

One Eurasian diplomat argues that Beijing's current threats are a "theater play" that gives China great leverage on the cross-straits issue, at little actual cost.

Some longtime China watchers feel the Taiwan saber rattling is already subsiding.

Either way, hard-line elements in Beijing are now being allowed to put out as party line a message that months back would seem excessive: Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua University professor and currently the most quotable of the "attack Taiwan" school of thinking, has been making statements to the effect that it is better to attack Taiwan sooner, before it achieves a revised constitution and arguably more legitimacy. He suggests an attack date prior to 2008, as a military act in that time frame is more "controllable and local."

Hong Kong newspapers have reported, citing sources in the PLA, that Chinese military strategists believe their attack force will eclipse Taiwan's ability to resist, in a year or two.

Indeed, while much of the imagery surrounding a Chinese attack on Taiwan has depicted missile attacks from the Fujian coastline that would turn Taipei into a smoking wreck, Chinese experts now speak of small surgical strikes that would force the island to its knees quickly and with minimum damage. David Shambaugh, a PLA expert with George Washington University in D.C., recently told foreign journalists here that the PLA has been studying the US operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. New scenarios are being contemplated that some Chinese generals argue could be conducted within an imagined scale of acceptability.

Tomorrow: Schools of thought on whether China would attack Taiwan.

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