Confident Taiwan rolls out its tanks

Sixty miles south of Taipei, the 51st Tank Brigade was ready and waiting. But Lieutenant-General Kao An-guo, the deputy commander of Taiwan's Northern Field Army, was not letting on if he was concerned.

"I do not think the Chinese Communists have the ability to cross the Taiwan Strait," he said yesterday, as 40 tanks and armoured troop carriers put on a demonstration of what would await them if they did.

The training and attack base, in the suburbs of Hsinchu city, is home to 1,700 troops, one of many bases on Taiwan. If the general was to be believed, the brigade had stayed on level 5, the lowest in terms of alert. "We do not feel tense," he said.

Yesterday, as blustery rain and fog shrouded Taiwan and the strait, the battle was mostly about propaganda. As the tank brigade was put through its paces for the world's television cameras, Taiwan's message was confident. "We are ready to repulse any invading force coming from outside the island," said General Kao.

On the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait, China's latest military exercises appeared to have been delayed by bad weather. But preparations for a show of force were under way.

On the island of Pingtan, off China's south-east coast, radio broadcasts ordered residents of nearby islets to evacuate to the mainland before 4pm. Civilians on coastal areas were also told to move, and fishermen to stay in port.

People's Liberation Army (PLA) tanks and troop-carrying vehicles were reported to be patrolling the streets of Pingtan. "There are tanks, troop carriers and other military vehicles all over. The army has taken charge of local traffic," a local official reported.

The new exercises, which were due to start yesterday and continue until after Taiwan's presidential election on Saturday, are expected to include well-publicised amphibious landings on Pingtan. It will be an unmistakable message to Taiwanese voters. Last November, large-scale beach landings were included in mainland exercises and then shown at length on state television for Taiwan's benefit. This week's army, navy and air force manoeuvres are expected to be larger than ever, over an area stretching to the middle of the Taiwan Strait.

In Hong Kong, the Peking-controlled Wen Wei Po newspaper quoted a PLA leader as saying China might need to widen the latest exercises.

"The scale of strategic exercises currently and in the future may have to be enlarged," said the deputy commander of Shenyang military district, Shi Baoyuan.

Although few analysts believe the PLA will attempt to seize any of Taiwan's territory this week, residents of small islands closest to the test zone have decided not to wait around. Large numbers of soldiers are on alert, and the towns have almost shut down.

On Wuchiu, 11 miles south of the zone, only 16 of the 82 residents remain, and they are under curfew. The 200 islanders still on the Chu islands, 11 miles north of the zone, practised air-raid drills yesterday. About 300 islanders decided to flee on Sunday, although the government has no official policy concerning evacuation.

Fishing boats, which would normally work these waters, were warned repeatedly to stay clear of the region and were turned back to Taiwan's northern port of Keelung.

Tension in the region will escalate this week after the arrival of the US aircraft-carrier Nimitz, and the decision on whether it should pass through the Taiwan Strait. At the weekend, China's Prime Minister, Li Peng, warned it not to. He said any show of force in the strait would "merely complicate matters" . In Hsinchu, General Kao was reticent about the US aircraft-carrier. "I wish the American soldiers ... Oh, no ... I can't tell you in detail," he smiled. Yesterday's tank demonstration had been organised at short notice, following the mainland's slick television portrayal of missile tests near Taiwan earlier this month. Unlike China, where news of the PLA's exercises has been orchestrated by official propaganda organs, Taiwan's publicity exercise was low-key, although Taiwanese journalists were banned. Had General Kao heard anything about mainland manoeuvres that day? "I have no time to read the newspapers today," he laughed. As tanks emerged from the fog on to the battle training-ground, the commentary said: "With psychological warfare, the enemy will be easier to be destroyed." But the most effective weapon yesterday appeared to be the weather.

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