A hazardous game of brinkmanship gathered pace in the Taiwan Strait yesterday as Chinese troops readied themselves for new exercises, the United States moved an aircraft carrier into the region, and the Taiwan president, Lee Teng-hui, said the island's people "must unite and struggle on".
In Peking, the Chinese foreign minister, Qian Qichen, said it was "ridiculous" for anyone to call for the United States to intervene in defence of Taiwan. "I think these people must have forgotten the fact that Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory," he said. "It is not a protectorate of the United States."
Nine days of naval and aircraft exercises using live ammunition are due to start today, the latest move by Peking to intimidate Taiwan ahead of presidential elections on 23 March. Taiwan government officials said preparatory troop movements had been detected, and that the exercises at the south end of the strait would include missile firings, anti- submarine measures, artillery and bombing runs.
China has marked out a large rectangular zone for the exercises, which reaches to about 40 miles from the Taipei-held island of Quemoy and also touches the mid-point of the Taiwan Strait.
The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, calling China's actions "reckless", said a battle group led by the aircraft carrier Independence would be moved "somewhat closer" to Taiwan "in a position to be helpful if they need to be". A guided-missile frigate and a destroyer have been added to the group, which will be in international waters between Taiwan and the Japanese island of Okinawa.
An Aegis-type cruiser, the Bunker Hill, has been positioned to the south of the Taiwan strait to monitor China's exercises. The nuclear- powered carrier Nimitz plus support ships will also arrive in the region "in about two weeks", according to the Pentagon. With all these vessels in place, the US force would include more than 110 carrier-based strike aircraft and ships with more than 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Mr Christopher said the Chinese tests could have "grave consequences". China's actions, he said, "smack of intimidation and coercion. So that is a situation of great concern to us."
Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, said in a television interview that if the Chinese military exercises led to "accidents", Peking would be "held accountable". And he added: "We have also said that if they attack Taiwan there will be grave consequences."
US officials have said that while they believe China's public assurances that it will not invade Taiwan, the decision to dispatch the naval task force had been guided by "prudence". However, the officials were at pains to stress that the US intended to maintain its policy of constructive engagement with China, described by Mr Christopher as a country "so important we must find some way to manage those areas of disagreement".
Mr Lake said the White House still planned to persuade the US Congress to renew favourable trade conditions for China when a current agreement expires this summer.
Mr Qian yesterday again blamed President Clinton's decision last year to grant a visa to Mr Lee as being the prime cause of the present escalating tension. But he also said that if the Taiwan leadership could "amend its ways . . . then the situation will be eased", hinting specifically that Peking has identified President Lee's campaign for a United Nations seat for Taiwan as a key conflict. "Taiwan is part of China's territory, so how can it be eligible for the UN?" he said.
President Lee, who is almost certain to win the elections, has so far shown no sign of looking for compromises. Yesterday, he said Taiwan would tread "very carefully" but that Taiwanese "must unite and struggle on even if Communist China test-fires 100 missiles and 1,000 bullets to push Taiwan into the corner".
He told an election rally: "We do not want to have confrontation or war with Communist China."
In the Taipei New Park, which commemorates the victims of the 1947 massacre of native Taiwanese by the Nationalist Party, those at the monument yesterday lunchtime did not seem particularly concerned by recent events. "I do not worry, I do not think Peking will attack," said a 21-year-old student, Lin Shin-hwe. But she added: "The US cannot help Taiwan. I think America is afraid of Peking."
In the capital Taipei, some Taiwan academics and analysts were, however, voicing much greater fears. Tim Ting, the chief consultant for Gallup (Taiwan) and Professor of Sociology at the National Taiwan University, said: "A lot of people here believe things will go back to normal after the 23 March polls. I think that is ridiculous."
Dr Ting said he feared it was "too late" to find a compromise that would maintain the status quo ante. "I think President Lee is happy to see the confrontation with China, and the US getting involved . . . He will continue his policy, there is not retreat," he added.
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