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Jiang bolsters his claim with show of military might

Chinese challenge: Naval exercises send tough message to US and Taiwan 8 Pro-Peking body attacks Hong Kong's rights bill


When China's television broadcasts footage of President Jiang Zemin, surrounded by the new military leadership and watching naval exercises that included amphibious landings, the intended propaganda message is not subtle.

Wednesday night's pictures of Mr Jiang, seated with his commanders on the deck of a cruiser, was designed to portray a leader who can count on the military's loyalty. The footage of warships, beach landings and torpedo firings was another reminder for Taiwan of the possible consequences of moves towards independence. And when the Chinese media highlights Mr Jiang and his recent naval manoeuvres only days before China's President is due to meet President Bill Clinton in New York, these are signals for the United States.

Firstly, Mr Jiang wants recognition as a powerful world leader (and is smarting over the US's denial of full state honours for his visit). Secondly, Washington should mind its own business over Taiwan, which is a "key issue" in Sino-US ties, the Foreign Ministry said yesterday.

The relationship between Mr Jiang, the People's Liberation Army and China's policy over Taiwan, provides the Chinese backdrop to next Tuesday's presidential summit.

With the ailing 91-year-old Deng Xiaoping still clinging to life, Mr Jiang is using the time to bolster good relations with the generals, an essential consideration for anyone wanting to remain president, party chief and head of the armed forces.

Last month's personnel changes, including the promotion of General Zhang Wannian and the Defence Minister, Chi Haotian, to vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission, of which Mr Jiang is chairman, were seen as strengthening the President.

There is also the matter of appearances. The photograph (shown left) that appeared yesterday on the front pages of Chinese newspapers echoed almost identical images of Chairman Mao and Mr Deng inspecting the troops.

Nor was it an accident that Mr Jiang visited the navy for his high-profile military jaunt. Sea power is becoming increasingly important, because of Taiwan and China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. "The current situation has placed new demands on building the navy," Mr Jiang was quoted as saying.

The Taiwan challenge is one Mr Jiang cannot afford to mishandle. In January, he staked his claim as the architect of China's Taiwan policy with an "Eight-Point Plan" for reunification.

The received wisdom among Sinologists was that after the visit to the US in June by Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, the generals attacked the Jiang approach as too soft, and instigated a more aggressive policy.

Manoeuvres followed, including missile tests just north of Taiwan. Virulent attacks on Mr Lee appeared in the Chinese media. More manoeuvres are believed to be planned for this year, to erode Taiwanese support for Mr Lee ahead of next year's elections.

It seemed like a confusing change of tack when a US news magazine, after an interview with Mr Jiang, reported this week that he had raised the possibility of talks with the Taiwanese President. But yesterday the Foreign Ministry "clarified" the situation. Mr Jiang's comments had been distorted, a spokesman said. The President had reiterated existing policy, which welcomes a meeting on condition it takes place under the principle of "One China"; Peking regards Mr Lee as no more than the leader of a rebellious province.

The statement sounded like the military making sure no one misunderstood the real position. In any case, Taiwan's conditions for a meeting - that Peking recognises Taiwan as an equal political entity - make such talks unlikely.