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Army calls shots as China talks tough over Taiwan

PRESIDENT Jiang Zemin is a man who cares about the Chinese army. According to the latest issue of China's Talents, a glossy official magazine, Mr Jiang has visited more than 100 platoons and brigades since becoming head of the army more than five years ago. He does not shirk trips to the harsher outposts of the nation: on China's north-east frontier he braved temperatures of minus 30C and climbed a 50ft watchtower to meet a couple of ordinary soldiers, the magazine reported.

Such propaganda is everywhere at this time of the year; it is good for Mr Jiang, who needs the military's support, and it pleases the army. The Chinese military is even more centre-stage than usual at the moment. Last Tuesday was Army Day, the 68th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. This year, the army's central position in Chinese communist mythology is receiving even greater attention because of the 50th anniversary on 15 August of China's victory in the "War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression". Chinese newspaper commentaries conveniently omit the role of the US in defeating the Japanese.

The anniversary celebrations are taking place at a time when nationalist sensitivities have already been inflamed. Sino-US relations have plummeted to their worst level since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, following Washington's decision to grant a visa to the Taiwan president, Lee Teng- hui, in June.

Sino-Taiwan relations are similarly dislocated as a result of a barrage of rhetoric from the mainland against President Lee, plus hawkish military exercises by the PLA off China's eastern shores. In the third week of July, these manoeuvres included tests of surface-to-surface missiles that landed less than 100 miles north of Taiwan.

China's top leaders are in agreement over taking a hard nationalist line on Taiwan. But during the past few weeks, there have been persistent rumours that army veterans were dissatisfied with Mr Jiang's initial lack of public robustness in responding to President Lee's visa coup. Qian Qichen, the foreign minister, has even more been in their sights for his apparent failure at first to deal resolutely with the situation. Against this backdrop, the military chiefs are increasingly calling the shots over the public tone of China's foreign policy.

By mid-July, the PLA was making its voice heard with the announcement of the missile tests, designed both to remind Taipei of the island's limited anti-missile defences, and to send a clear signal about the possible consequences of any moves by Taiwan towards independence. The military's mouthpiece, the Liberation Army Daily, spelt out the message in an Army Day editorial last week: "We will never sit idly by while even one inch of territory is split from the motherland. The PLA is determined and capable of accomplishing the sacred mission entrusted by the Party and the people."

The PLA sees sabre-rattling as the way to undermine support for independence within Taiwan. Many analysts say this strategy is counter-productive. According to David Shambaugh, reader in Chinese politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London: "The mainland clearly thinks that military pressure deters independence in Taiwan, and they seem to have no recognition of the fact that military pressure increases the desire for independence in Taiwan." China's defence minister, Chi Haotian, last week reiterated that Peking would not give up the option of using force should "foreign forces meddle with China's reunification and promote an 'independent Taiwan', or if the Taiwan authorities are bent on splitting the motherland".

But, beyond the rhetoric, what are the chances that China would resort to force? "Very low," said Dr Shambaugh, adding that Peking does not have the military capability to guarantee success. "More likely, if political tensions continue to escalate, would be a blockade of Taiwan or the threat to intercept merchant shipping, oil tankers for example, going in and out of Taiwan." But even this would be difficult for the Chinese Navy to enforce.

The PLA knows this, but is nevertheless going ahead with military exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan until September. Mr Jiang, who is also party chief and head of the army, will give the generals all the encouragement they want. He needs an image as a statesman who does not waver on sovereignty issues.

At the Lunar New Year celebrations in January Mr Jiang staked his claim as the architect of China's Taiwan policy by announcing an "eight-point plan" towards reunification. Recent events have left that plan looking ill-judged.

Mr Jiang needs the support of the army chiefs at a time of political uncertainty. China's ailing paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, has defied expectations by lingering on, and will celebrate his 91st birthday on 22 August. But Mr Jiang's position as primus inter pares in the post-Deng era is not yet assured. Visiting far-flung army barracks in freezing conditions, Mr Jiang's main pre-occupation is the warmth of the generals' welcome.

In public at least, the top brass are backing Mr Jiang (though, while Mr Deng is alive they would hardly do otherwise). On Army Day, General Liu Huaqing, China's most senior military figure, announced in the People's Daily: "Our army should be guided by the thought of Comrade Deng Xiaoping and act according to the directives of Chairman Jiang Zemin." In issuing those "directives", however, President Jiang will continue to pay close attention to his army commanders.