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China can only rattle the sabres

Saturday, August 21, 1999

By DAVID LAGUE, Herald Correspondent in Beijing

Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui has exposed the myth of Chinese power in a challenge that has reduced Beijing to frustrated sabre rattling and hysterical propaganda, but minimal concrete retaliation.

Since President Lee insisted on July 9 that the mainland deal with Taiwan on a state-to-state basis, a move Beijing interpreted as a step towards independence, it has become clear there are few military responses available to China without risking abject failure or a damaging backlash - or both. This doesn't mean Beijing will decide against a clash with the island it regards as a renegade province - or recoil from conflict with Taiwan's ultimate bodyguard, the United States.

At the end of a century characterised by disastrous military miscalculation, an increasingly desperate and ultimately doomed Chinese Communist Party could eventually decide any cost, even war with a super power, is acceptable to block Taiwan's emergence as an independent nation. But if common sense were applied, a survey of the options would dictate restraint. One problem for Beijing is that over the 50 years since the communist armies chased the defeated Nationalists off the mainland, the Taiwan Strait has not become any narrower.

No matter how intimidating a pose the People's Liberation Army strikes on the mainland, it lacks the armada and air support it would need to cross the 200 kilometer strait and invade heavily defended Taiwan.

This inadequacy would be even more pronounced if the US military, overwhelmingly more powerful than the PLA, helped counter a landing.

The other key problem for Beijing is that whatever action it takes, military or economic, it will be difficult to avoid harming the very people it seeks to embrace - Taiwan's 23 million citizens who so far have backed their President's defiance. These factors mean a response short of invasion appears more likely.

Some pundits have suggested sudden missile strikes against Taiwan over a short time would shatter civilian morale and undermine business confidence without inflicting major damage or heavy casualties. They argue this would give US forces insufficient time to intervene.

The risk is that this kind of bullying might bolster resolve on the island and invite retaliation from the Taiwanese air force. It would also generate considerable international hostility, particularly in the West where there is strong sympathy for Taiwan.

China could find itself in the role of international villain at a time when it desperately needs external support to make the transition from communism to a more open political and economic system. Foreign investment, the influx of technology and international co-operation could all suffer.

Even the suggestion that Beijing is planning to attack and capture or occupy one of the outlying islands appears highly risky. An attack would carry the same political and economic costs as any other hostile act and could prove militarily expensive.

The most important of these islands, Jinmen and Matsu, are close to the mainland, heavily defended and within range of Taiwan's air force.

It would also be difficult to conceal the long preparations for a landing, given the low state of readiness of Chinese forces. This would allow the defenders extra time to prepare and give US naval units an opportunity to deploy to the region.

Even if an attacking force was lodged, there would be no guarantee of rapid success.

A visit to the military museum on Jinmen could be useful to PLA planners entrusted with the task of preparing options for their political leaders.

On October 25, 1949, the PLA landed 10,000 troops on Jinmen, about 4 kilometres from the southern port of Xiamen, and 56 hours later the invasion force had been wiped out. Jinmen is now better defended.

China could also use artillery bombardment of one of the islands. Mainland guns shelled Jinmen from 1958 to 1978 but this had little effect other than to supply the raw materials for a thriving domestic industry, kitchen knives fashioned from tonnes of melted down PLA shell fragments.