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Wednesday, July 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
China rattles sabers across Taiwan Strait
By Robert Marquand
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 is again being targeted by the PLA and by Communist Party propagandists. For nearly three years, China has practiced mostly pinstripe diplomacy on Taiwan.
The strategy was to be mild and reasonable in order that Taiwanese might vote President Chen Shui-bian out of office. China's top leaders, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, spoke often of a "peaceful unification" with Taiwan. Yet last fall as it became clear that Chen could be re-elected, and then more boldly after March 20 when Chen was returned to office the rhetoric 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 yesterday on a Thursday resolution in Congress supporting the Taiwan Relations Act. The law allows U.S. 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 U.S., 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 adviser Condoleezza Rice came here July 8 to signal, in her words, "what the U.S. can and can't do" to cooperate with China. Analysts argue that an element of the ongoing U.S. naval Summer Pulse '04 exercises that involve deploying seven carrier groups worldwide has protection of the Taiwan Straits as part of its message.
One reason for Beijing's sudden new threatening talk 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 are 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.
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.
Hong Kong newspapers have reported that Chinese military strategists believe their attack force in a year or two will eclipse Taiwan's ability to resist.
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 said the PLA has been studying the U.S. 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.
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