Washington Post


Still Rattling Missiles

Monday, February 15, 1999; Page A28

China is back with another show of force to Taiwan. Three years ago it fired missiles from ships conducting a military exercise in the Taiwan Strait. Now it systematically is moving missiles, reportedly by the hundreds, into the part of China closest to the territory it regards as a breakaway province.

This development seems to have no specific trigger beyond an evidently continuing desire to intimidate Taiwan and keep it from eventually creeping under an American anti-missile umbrella and thus be even less likely to reunify with the mainland.

As signals of force, the multiyear coastal deployments are less dramatic but no less objectionable than the earlier firings. In Taiwan, at any rate, the effect may be the same - to advertise to the Taiwanese people the benefits of independence from Beijing and to turn them further against any early consideration of reunification.

The United States and other interested countries should not hesitate to remind Beijing that in their view reunification can come about only peacefully. Chinese missile rattling has no place in the proceedings. The rattling also is bound to increase Taiwan's appetite for anti-missile protection. That could come to mean, over the years, the inclusion of Taiwan under an American missile umbrella.

A broad American policy choice may be emerging. The United States is directed by longtime bipartisan policy as well as by statute to help provide for Taiwan's defense and to ensure that the island's future unfolds by peaceful means. But a missile shield, once developed and deployed, does not stop at protecting the intended beneficiary, here Taiwan. It is in the nature of such a shield that it also could embolden Taiwan to feel that it did not really have to negotiate seriously with the Chinese.

But all of this is a long way from happening, if it even happens at all. Negotiations ought to take place without coercion and on the basis of mutual interest. No serious talks seems possible while China is flexing its missiles, stirring fresh doubts about its appetite for negotiation, heating upa regional arms race and alarming the Taiwanese people whom it ought to be conciliating.