Chinese missile tests prove embarrassing flop

Peking in unsuccessful show of strength toward Taiwan as US ties with Taipei grow closer

China's attempt to flex its military muscles off the Taiwanese coast has proved a less than complete propaganda success with one of its test missiles landing embarrassingly off-target.

Taiwanese officials said yesterday that four missiles had been test-fired from the mainland during Friday and Saturday. The first one malfunctioned and came down in China's Nanping county, in south-east Fujian province, possibly causing damage. The missiles were not carrying explosives.

The target zone for the missiles, which were fired from Jiangxi province, was an area of open sea about 100 miles north of Taiwan. Reports in Taipei said one missile landed in the target zone, but two others came down by its southern edge. Military analysts said the missiles were probably M- 9s, with a range of about 400 miles. The Chinese People's Liberation Army last week warned ships and aircraft to keep away from the target area until the test-firings end this Friday.

The military exercise has been widely seen as a blatant reminder to Taipei not to go too far in seeking international recognition. Peking was enraged by last month's visit to the US of the Taiwanese President, Lee Teng-hui, and its relations both with Taipei and Washington have soured since the trip.

China maintains the right to use military force if Taiwan declares independence from China, or if a foreign power invades the island. However, the apparent lack of accuracy achieved in the current test-firings will give further ammunition to some military analysts' view that China's outdated and ill- trained military would be unable to take Taiwan by force even if it tried.

Of greater immediate concern to Taiwan's many investors in the mainland are reports that the political row may be spreading to economic and trade issues. The local China Times Express quoted Taiwan merchants as saying that China had recently started requiring them to produce "export permits" before shipping goods out of the country. Taiwan is the second biggest investor in China after Hong Kong.

Peking yesterday again turned to rhetoric. A front-page commentary in People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, warned that 1.2 billion Chinese people ''have long made up their minds never to allow the plot of 'the independence of Taiwan' in any form to succeed''. The spokesman for Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party, Chien Hansen, dismissed such words as ''irresponsible''.

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