Warning of Chinese attack prompts jitters in Taiwan missile attacks on Taiwan

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

Renewed fears of a Chinese attack on Taiwan have been roused by a report in yesterday's New York Times that the Chinese government would launch a series of daily missile attacks against the island following the March presidential election.

Such a move, the Times said, would be designed to pre-empt moves to secure international recognition for the island's government. Peking views Taiwan as a renegade province. However, a senior US official said the Clinton administration had ''no independent confirmation or even credible evidence'' of such a plan, and China's foreign ministry called the report ''totally groundless''.

The warnings are reported to have been delivered by Chas Freeman, a former assistant secretary of defence who is among a group of former US officials regarded as ''very old friends of China''. Mr Freeman's contacts with senior Peking officials go back to the days when he acted as President Richard Nixon's interpreter during Nixon's ground-breaking visit to China in 1972.

Peking reacted with fury last year when President Lee Teng- hui of Taiwan made a so-called private visit to the United States, a move that appeared to foreshadow the end of Taiwan's diplomatic isolation. But the strength of the Chinese reaction seems to have drawn the United States back to its original ''one-China'' policy, which offers no scope for recognising the government of Taiwan. China, in turn, has been less aggressive in pursuing its claims.

Now, however, China appears to be worrying that President Lee will triumph in the first-ever democratic election for a Chinese head of state and that he will use his mandate to canvass international support for Taiwan in the US.

The report says that Mr Freeman conveyed China's concerns to Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, on 4 January and that the matter was discussed at a White House meeting of non-government China specialists.

The plan, according to Mr Freeman, is for one conventional missile strike a day for 30 days, not to start a war but to warn the US to keep out of Sino-Taiwanese relations and to persuade President Lee to maintain a low profile.

Mr Freeman, who has previously criticised President Lee in public, confirmed the report. In Taiwan, where talk of Chinese military action always provokes jitters, officials said the report was unconfirmed, and could not provide a basis for comment.

However, tension between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is higher now than at any time since the late 1970s, when the two sides last exchanged artillery fire. China last year launched a series of deliberately threatening military exercises off Taiwan's coast and the government in Taipei retaliated with a series of more modest military manoeuvres.

Meanwhile, rumours of preparations for war have multiplied, reaching a peak last November with reports that China had changed its criteria for authorising a military invasion of Taiwan, classifying the island as harbouring a ''covert independence movement''. Limited military action was justified, therefore, to prevent further breakaway moves.

Officially both the Chinese and Taiwan governments are committed to a policy of reunification but China fears that President Lee, the first native Taiwanese to head the island's government, is intent on drawing the two states further apart.

Much of the Chinese military pressure has been aimed at undermining confidence in President Lee but the crude methods of intimidation seem to have backfired and placed the President in an unbeatable position for the forthcoming presidential elections. China's best hope now is to look for ways to minimise his opportunities for capitalising on his position.