China disrupts Taiwan trade with live fire

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CHINA stepped up pressure on Taiwan last night, announcing live- ammunition military exercises, beginning on Tuesday, which are likely to disrupt trade routes to the island's southern port of Kaohsiung. The naval and air force manoeuvres will add to growing tension on the island, following the start on Friday of missile launch tests by the mainland into the seas off Taiwan's north and south coasts.

Shipping and aircraft were warned to keep out of the area, which extends over a large rectangle between China's south-east coast and the south of Taiwan.

This latest set of provocative military actions by China is timed to end just three days before Taiwan's first democratic presidential election, on 23 March. In a robust televised address, the island's president, Lee Teng-hui, rebuffed China's tactics. "I want to emphasise that force and threats will not obstruct our pursuit of democracy, freedom and dignity," he said. But on Friday, nervous Taiwan residents, in pursuit of a safe currency, virtually emptied the island's banks of US dollars as they rushed to exchange Taiwanese notes.

The Communist Party mouthpiece in Peking, People's Daily, stepped up its threats yesterday as part of the mainland's attempt to erode support for Mr Lee, who is set to win the election. Peking maintains that the Taiwanese president is moving the island towards independence. "The real danger is allowing Lee's attempts to continue with the 'Taiwan independence' stances unchecked, so jeopardizing the efforts to reunify the motherland," it said.

Peking's exercises in the Taiwan Strait, appear to be a blunt warning that the mainland might try to enforce a blockade of the island. People's Daily threatened as much: "If Lee continues along the dangerous road [of independence], there would be no future for Taiwan to speak of, since the Taiwan economy is characterised by a lack of raw materials, and a small market within the island, from which the Taiwan people will suffer deeply," the editorial said.

Mr Lee said he would continue with attempts to raise Taiwan's profile in the world and a poll in Taiwan's United Daily News yesterday has confirmed suggestions that China's tactics are backfiring. The survey, conducted over the two previous days, found support for reunification had fallen from 20 per cent in July to 16 per cent. Support for independence rose from 14 per cent to 17 per cent.

The US is monitoring the situation. In Washington, the Defence Secretary, William Perry, said: "We have, of course, a substantial naval presence in the western Pacific. We always do."