Kyodo News Report


Taiwan stages anti-China military exercise, vows readiness for war

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008
By Max Hirsch

Taipei, TAIWAN -- Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou on Wednesday presided over a military exercise for the first time since taking office, his attendance serving as a powerful reminder of lingering tensions with rival China. ''Our military has not let up, even as relations across the Taiwan Strait improve,'' Ma said at the exercise after surveying a hillside smoldering from artillery attacks. ''We seek peace but strive for deterrence.''

For Ma, who has struck a conciliatory note toward Beijing, projecting military toughness is a political ritual going out of style.

In October, he vowed no war would break out across the strait under his watch, comments widely panned as encouraging the military to let down its guard. Last week, the military announced its scaling back anti-China ''Han Kuang'' military exercises from an annual to biennual schedule, citing a need for more time to fix ''shortcomings'' in hardware-testing. That same day, Premier Liu Chao-hsiuan announced plans to ease a ban on military officials visiting China.

But Ma wore a different hat, or camouflaged helmet, at the live-fire exercise on these sprawling southern training grounds.

U.S.-made Cobra attack helicopters punctuated his tough talk by thundering over rice paddies and unleashing gunfire at targets on a nearby hillside. F-16 fighter jets dropped flares and dummy bombs, while troops, tanks and personnel carriers assaulted imaginary foes from China's People's Liberation Army.

''In the future, talks on security with China are a possibility,'' Ma said in a speech at a viewing platform, his top national security advisors and Defense Minister Chao Chien-min seated in the front row. ''But,'' he added, ''we definitely will not be negotiating from a position of fear.''

China has claimed Taiwan as its own since the two split amid civil war in 1949. Since then, Beijing has vowed to unify Taipei with the mainland, by force if necessary, stoking 60 years of hostilites that sometimes brought them to the brink of war.

Since Ma's May 20 inauguration, however, bilateral relations have turned a corner, with Ma toning down pro-sovereignty rhetoric and emphasizing economic cooperation across the strait.

The two sides restarted in June formal talks on forging transit and financial links. Indeed, last week, they launched direct cross-strait air, sea and postal links, a breakthrough in bilateral relations historically marked by mutual distrust and isolation.

Perhaps the strongest symbolic boost to bilateral ties came Tuesday, when the island received two pandas from China. Beijing typically pledges pandas to countries as a goodwill gesture, and Taipei was agog, as local media reported on the cuddly creatures' every bamboo meal and bathroom break.

Ma's offsetting panda images so soon after the animals' arrival with hard-hitting sound bites at a live-fire exercise was widely viewed as a bid to allay critics.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) views the pandas as communist propaganda ploys, cute though they may be. Ma, the DPP has charged, downgraded the island's sovereignty by accepting ''Tuan Tuan'' and ''Yuan Yuan,'' whose names together mean ''unification'' in Chinese, as a ''domestic transfer'' from the mainland, according to rules regulating the rare species trade.