Beijing prompts invasion fears
|By Bill Gertz
May 30, 2001
Washington -- China has massed amphibious vehicles and landing craft on an island near Taiwan as part of large-scale military exercises that are now under way, Pentagon officials said yesterday. At least 157 amphibious craft and vehicles were spotted recently on Dongshan island by U.S. intelligence-gathering aircraft. The island is located across the Taiwan Strait from southern Taiwan.
The exercise is raising concerns among some in the Pentagon that China is practicing for a future invasion of Taiwan or an attack on one of Taiwan´s smaller islands near the Chinese coast. "We have not seen these kinds of forces there for some time," said one intelligence official, who noted that the numbers were three times higher than during past exercises. The amphibious exercise is expected to be one of the largest shore-based war games held by the Chinese military in recent years.
Other defense officials sought to play down the exercises. One official said the Dongshan maneuvers are "Phase 2" of war games under way in the South China Sea. "This is part of the spring amphibious exercise series," the official said. "Dongshan is right across from Taiwan, but we think these are normal [exercises]. It is not unusual for the Chinese to put everything they have into the mix."
A third official said the equipment involved in the exercise includes amphibious tanks, jeeps, armored vehicles and landing craft. The maneuvers also are expected to employ hovercraft troop transports deployed from large amphibious ships.
Amphibious assault landings during exercises by U.S. Marine Corps forces normally include scores of landing craft and some water-capable tanks and armored combat vehicles. In February 1945, for instance, when U.S. Marines assaulted the island of Iowa Jima it took 495 ships to land 75,000 troops.
Preparations for the amphibious exercise near Taiwan come as Chinese forces are engaged in another military exercise farther south in the South China Sea, said officials familiar with U.S. intelligence reports.
Activities related to both exercises were first reported by The Washington Times on May 17. U.S. officials said the South China Sea drills involve Chinese naval and air forces on Hainan island and on Woody Island, a small disputed islet claimed by both China and the Philippines.
The amphibious warfare arms on Dongshan were photographed last week and their presence was reported to Pentagon policy-makers.
Taiwan´s Defense Ministry said Friday that the military drills are "routine." His statement did not provide details on the exercises. "They are not targeted [at Taiwan] and have nothing to do with the president´s visit abroad," the ministry said in a statement, referring to the fact that Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian currently is traveling in South America.
Reports of the Chinese military exercises caused stocks to fall and the value of the Taiwanese dollar to drop.
A Taiwanese government official said on Friday that Chinese military exercises and missile deployments near Taiwan are not helpful in improving ties between the two countries. "We don´t feel military intimidation is constructive," said Tsai Ing-wen, head of the Taipei government´s Mainland Affairs Council, Reuters reported from Taipei.
"Military exercises and missile deployment targeting Taiwan violate the mainland´s commitment of using peaceful means to solve the problems across the Strait," she said.
A Pentagon report to Congress on the Taiwan Strait military balance said an invasion of the island by China is one of three possible forms of attack. "The PRC could launch an invasion of Taiwan (or an offshore island), using amphibious or other sea or air transported forces," the report said. Other possibilities include a blockade or combined air and missile attacks.
Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not likely because China´s military lacks ships for moving troops and equipment over water. China has fewer than 100 amphibious warfare ships capable of carrying large numbers of troops and tanks.
Dongshan, where the current exercises are being held, was the main site of China´s 1996 military amphibious exercises involving ground, air and naval forces. Those maneuvers also included missile test firings north and south of Taiwan.
The exercises and missile launches were viewed by the Pentagon at that time as possible preparations for a military attack on Taiwan. They came amid preparations for elections in Taiwan and were seen as part of efforts by Beijing to intimidate Taiwanese voters. The United States responded with the dispatch of two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan in a show of force.
China´s military has been building up its naval forces since the 1996 standoff that has become known as the Taiwan Strait crisis. Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military, said Beijing will likely use the maneuvers to showcase their new amphibious tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps near Taiwan. "We should be very concerned about this exercise and what the combined PLA exercises over the last two years tell us about the accelerating capability of the People´s Liberation Army to conduct combined arms warfare," Mr. Fisher said.
Mr. Fisher said that China´s limited amphibious warfare capability can be used for a range of operations, from attacking Taiwan´s small islands to conducting a security following large-scale aerial bombing and missile attacks.
A photograph of a new Chinese armored personnel carrier shows a combat vehicle with an outboard motor attached. "This is why we say the Chinese are using ´60s tactics with ´50s technology," one defense official said.
Chinese military writings also have discussed using fishing boats and other small vessels as part of an invasion force against Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said yesterday that a team of four officials would travel to China later this week to assess how to ship the damaged EP-3E surveillance aircraft out of Hainan island, where it has been held since the April 1 collision with a Chinese F-8 jet.