Int'l Herald Tribune

Chinese Army Directs Tough Talk at Taiwan

Paris, Monday, July 19, 1999

By John Pomfret Washington Post Service
BEIJING - In the latest broadside in the increasingly tense relationship between Taiwan and China, the Chinese military said Sunday that it would not rule out using force to crush independence activists in Taiwan, and it made public photographs of naval assault craft carrying tanks and armored personnel carriers toward a beach.

In a front-page article in the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po, a Communist-owned newspaper, an unidentified officer in the People's Liberation Army was quoted as saying China had ''sufficient power to control the situation on Taiwan.''

''When peaceful reunification is hopeless and Taiwan independence forces are splitting the motherland, we will not rule out the use of force to resolve the Taiwan problem,'' the official was quoted as saying. "We have ample power. This is indisputable."

[President Jiang Zemin reiterated in a telephone conversation Sunday with President Bill Clinton that the use of force remained an option for China and warned against outside interference in the sovereignty dispute, the official Xinhua press agency reported, according to Agence France-Presse.

[Mr. Clinton phoned Mr. Jiang and spoke with him for a half-hour, telling him that the United States remained committed to its ''one China'' policy despite Taiwan's moves toward independence, The Associated Press reported.]

The Chinese Army officer's remarks, accompanied by a large photograph of assault landing-craft, followed reports in the same newspaper Saturday that China had held ''wartime mobilization drills'' Friday involving more than 100 civilian boats in Fujian Province, opposite Taiwan.

Significantly, that report said Major General Su Jing, the deputy chief of staff of the Nanjing Military Region, which would be responsible for any large-scale military exercises, watched the operation. Sailors, gathering for the drills, sang: ''We will liberate Taiwan.''

Tension between China and Taiwan has reached its highest point in three years following the sudden announcement last weekend by Taiwan's democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, that Taiwan wanted to establish ''special state-to-state'' relations with China. Taiwanese officials later expanded on Mr. Lee's announcement, saying they wanted to abandon the ''one-China'' policy that has been the bedrock of relations between Taipei and Beijing since the 1980s when tension eased in the Strait of Taiwan.

Xinhua accused Mr. Lee on Sunday of ''going further and further down the separatist road in disregard of the Taiwanese people's wishes for peace, stability and development.''

''Lee Teng-hui has with extreme irresponsibility dragged Taiwan into dangerous circumstances,'' the agency said.

Taiwanese officials say they want to have a relationship with China like that between East Germany and West Germany before they united. Both Germanys recognized each other and had seats at the United Nations. Today, Taiwan has no UN seat and China has succeeded in banning it from most international forums - except as an observer.

Xinhua said Sunday that Mr. Lee's ''state-to-state'' remarks were ''a sort of political gamble with Taiwan's future and the interests and well-being of Taiwanese compatriots.''

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and does not recognize its democratically elected government. Taiwan, which has been estranged from the mainland since Nationalists lost a civil war to the Communists and fled to the island in 1949, has said it will embrace only a democratic China.

So far, China's military, which is known to favor adopting a hard line against Taiwan, has been allowed to take the lead in framing China's response to the crisis - something that has Western diplomats concerned.

In 1996, during an earlier emergency, China's military also took the lead. At the time, China was furious after Mr. Lee traveled to the United States in 1995 to become the first Taiwanese president to visit the United States since Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

So, as Taiwan prepared for its first direct presidential elections in March 1996, China launched a massive military exercise just opposite Taiwan and fired missiles near the island. The United States responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle-groups to the region, bringing Washington and Beijing perilously close to war.

In Sunday's story, the unidentified military officer contended that those 1996 drills were a success - because they ''beat back the influence of Taiwan independence activism and contained Lee's separatist plot.''

This analysis, which has been made recently in several publications linked to China's military, is extremely worrying to Western military and diplomatic officials who fear that China's military, backed by hard-liners in the Communist Party, will be encouraged to undertake a similarly provocative action now.

In the West and in Taiwan, China's adventure in 1996 is largely viewed as a failure, and several current and former American officials in recent days have maintained that China has learned its lesson. They said it clearly helped Mr. Lee at the ballot box, whereas China's goal was to weaken the two-time president of Taiwan.

But an Asian military officer said it would be a mistake to assume that China, especially its military, learned that lesson. ''We often hope that China thinks like we do,'' he said. ''But when it comes to Taiwan, they don't think like we do. Their military really believes that there could be a military solution to the Taiwan problem.''

Partly because of these fears, U.S. officials have said that unlike the 1996 crisis when American diplomacy got off to a slow start, this time the Clinton administration is engaged in the issue. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, are expected to meet this week in Singapore at a gathering of the Association of South East Asian Nations.