China yesterday gave a stern warning to the United States to keep its warships out of the Taiwan Strait, but also reassured Taiwanese businessmen that their mainland investments will be protected.
In a day of mixed signals from Peking, the prime minister, Li Peng, said: "If some foreign force attempts a show of force in the Taiwan Strait, his efforts will be not only futile, but can merely complicate matters." The USS Independence aircraft carrier and its battle group is already positioned in international waters to the north of Taiwan, and the USS Nimitz is on its way from the Gulf to be in position, probably to the south, before Taiwan's presidential election on 23 March.
The People's Liberation Army's latest round of military drills is due to start today, involving navy, army and air force. There are widespread rumours that it will practise amphibious landings on the mainland island of Pingtan, which lies just 11 miles from the Taipei-held Matsu group of islands, in another attempt to sway voters away from President Lee Teng-hui.
Taiwanese people have been leaving the islands closest to the new exercise zone, which extends over half the width of the Taiwan Strait at its northern end. To the south of the test zone, only 16 of Wuchiu island's inhabitants remain, and to the north of the zone about 300 people out of 500 have crammed boats to leave the Chu islands, which are part of the Matsu archipelago. These islands are all situated about 11 miles from the test area. There has been some speculation that China might try to capture a Taipei-held islet as a highly charged show of force.
While the military aggravation remained high, the diplomatic signals from Peking were again ambiguous. In the English- language Business Weekly yesterday, An Min, a senior foreign trade official, said: "No matter what happens, the legal rights of Taiwan business people in the Chinese mainland will always be protected, and trade across the straits is encouraged." Taiwan's annual investment on the mainland dropped 11 per cent last year, but still reached $3bn.
Taiwan's role in Sino-US relations remains pivotal to the crisis. Mr Li, in his annual news conference to mark the end of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Peking, said, when asked about the US ship movements, that China "will in no way accept the practice of one country imposing its views on another". But he added that the "correct way of ironing out these differences" was to have dialogue on an "equal, friendly and frank basis".
The Chinese prime minister's message to Taiwanese people was softer than recent rhetoric, but he still maintained that talks on reunification were a prerequisite of resolving the tension peacefully.
However, Peking still appears to be out of touch in its opinion of the effect its missile tests have on voting intentions in Taiwan. The official Xinhua news agency yesterday claimed support for Mr Lee was ebbing as a result of its military manoeuvres.
In practice, the opposite appears to be true. Mr Lee is now confident enough to say he wants at least 50 per cent in the polls, declaring: "Only with unity can we achieve the final victory." Unless China has some unexpected tactics planned, this goal may prove achieveable.
It is expected that some supporters of the opposition, pro-independence, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will vote for Mr Lee so that he is in a stronger position to deal with the mainland.
Taiwanese people consider the mainland's heavy-handed strategy a direct attack on the island's successful transition to democracy. Mr Lee, addressing a rally yesterday, warned Peking: "This kind of bullying mentality will only make those Chinese people who are yearning for freedom and democracy more disgusted with the Communist regime."
Even inside China's National People's Congress, the Peking leadership now has to contend with less pliant participants. At the closing session yesterday, most votes went through smoothly, but some 30 per cent of deputies did not vote in favour of the work report from China's chief prosecutor, and nearly a fifth did not back the Supreme Court's report. The many votes, abstentions, and no-shows are another indication of deep disquiet in the country at a failure to crack down on crime and corruption.