China plays on Taiwan's nerves

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Taiwan's Defence Ministry yesterday accused China of engaging in a "war of nerves" but said it would react with restraint when Peking starts missile tests on Friday. The missiles will be aimed at target zones close to Taiwan's coast, and are designed to intimidate Taiwan's voters before the island's first democratic presidential elections later this month.

The target areas are far closer to Taiwan than those used by China last year, and the tests will be more disruptive. The week of exercises will interfere with shipping and air corridors, and create a partial blockade of Taiwan's two main ports, Keelung and Kaohsiung. According to the official Xinhua news agency, the ground-to-ground "missile launching trainings" will be concentrated in two zones. One extends to within 30 miles west of the island at the southern end of the Taiwan Strait; the other, off the island's north-east, comes as close as 20 miles.

The Taiwan Prime Minister, Lien Chan, demanded that China stop its "provocative" behaviour and said the mainland would have to take "full responsibility" for the consequences. Most worrying to analysts is the possibility that a stray missile could land inside Taiwan territory and spark retaliation by Taipei. During exercises last year, some missiles landed well off- target. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended the tests as "normal" and added: "I do not think there will be an inaccuracy of landing the missiles." China is not expected to use live warheads.

A Taiwan Defence Ministry statement said its troops were on high alert and would counter any threat. But it added: "If Communist China uses a provocation as an excuse to start a war, our . . . troops will react with rational and self-controlled behaviour." Taiwan's stock market fell 1.3 per cent yesterday.

The People's Liberation Army has massed tens of thousands of troops in south-east Fujian province in preparation for the exercises. The manoeuvres are designed to sway voters away from President Lee Teng-hui, who is expected to win the Taiwan presidential election on 23 March. Since his visit last June to the United States, Mr Lee has been lambasted by the mainland government for allegedly promoting Taiwan independence, a charge he denies.

In his address yesterday to the opening of this year's annual National People's Congress, the Prime Minister, Li Peng, declared China's "determination and ability to safeguard state sovereignty and territorial integrity . . . No attempt to split the motherland will succeed". Mr Li said that China was in favour of "peaceful reunification" with Taiwan, but reiterated that Peking would not renounce the use of force.

Hardline generals are determined to spell out to Taiwan what would be at stake were it to move towards independence. The military top brass have a decisive influence on foreign policy as China's leaders jostle for position ahead of the death of the ailing paramount leader, 91-year- old Deng Xiaoping.