Taiwan and China do the sabre dance

Worst tension since 1970s raises fears that Peking will seize 'renegade' island

It is arguably one of the biggest games of bluff and counter-bluff in modern Chinese history. Eyeing each other warily across the Taiwan Strait, China and Taiwan are testing how far they can go without plunging into full-scale war.

China could hardly contain its fury when the President of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui, made a "private visit" to the United States in June, a visit that was seen as undermining China's success in diplomatically isolating Taiwan, which Peking regards as a renegade province.

A month after the President's visit, China tested tactical ballistic missiles in the Taiwan Strait, showing it was able to attack the island. Another exercise followed in August. Now Taiwan also has announced its own exercise, planned for Thursday.

There has been nothing like this level of political and military tension since the 1970s, when Chiang Kai-shek threatened that his Nationalist government, defeated in 1949, would storm back to the mainland and recover it militarily. China responded by bombarding Taiwan's smaller islands near the Chinese coast. Taiwan maintained a steady hail of return fire.

That confrontation eventually faded, and talks between the two governments gave rise to hopes of a peaceful solution. However, China feels President Lee is intent on the ultimate heresy of making Taiwan an independent state, abandoning the Nationalists' and Communists' longstanding commitment to Chinese reunification.

"I really think it's possible China will invade," says Tsai Bih-hwang, of the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist) party. Andrew Yang, secretary of the Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a government advisory body, said: "We don't under-estimate their ability to do it."

When the first Chinese military exercise was launched, the stock market dropped like a stone and visa queues formed outside Western quasi-diplomatic offices.

"It was a shock," said Antonio Chiang, publisher of Journalist political weekly. People wondered what else China might do, if it responded so aggressively to what was no more than a private visit to the US.

As Mr Yang points out, it was more than just a visit. "It very much emotionally affected the people. Here was the symbolic importance of our leader visiting a major Western country," he said. "It changed the emptiness and frustration of the Taiwanese people."

China saw even more sinister motives behind the visit, according to Chu Yun-han, the director of programmes at the influential Institute for National Policy Research.

He believes that Peking looked at the visit as part of a plot between Japan and the US to undermine China by promoting Taiwan.

Taiwan refuses to back down. Last month it made yet another futile attempt to rejoin the United Nations. President Lee, meanwhile, is riding high on the support he is gaining as the Chinese media launches personal attacks on him.

"The question here," says a Western observer in Taipei, "is how Taiwan's military response is conducted. How can they be seen as non-provocative but demonstrate that they are capable of providing defence?"

And what would happen if the military escalation got out of hand? China has the world's biggest army, and it is increasingly equipped with modern armaments. Unlike Taiwan's forces, the Chinese army has a number of leaders who have been tested in battle. China has "sufficient military capability to bring Taiwan to its knees if it wishes to do so", says a foreign resident with close ties to the military establishment.

He believes Taiwan's army has reasonably high combat efficiency, "but it has not been tested for a long time". Although Taiwan's army has acquired some modern equipment, such as F-16 fighter jets from the US, and Mirage 2000 jets from France, years of diplomatic isolation have taken their toll on its ability to acquire state-of-the-art equipment.

This is not to say Taiwan is incapable of resistance, but it may have difficulty coping with military action which falls well short of war. Wang Chien-shien, of the New Party, which believes President Lee is provoking China unnecessarily, says Peking could inflict heavy blows without full- scale war. He reckons that a missile attack on the southern city of Kaoshung, the centre of the petrochemical industry, would create enormous destruction. He also believes China might bomb airfields, immobilising Taiwan's jets.

Mr Chiang thinks China could "terrify the Taiwanese people" without using missiles. Continued military tests, the seizure of fishing vessels and other less extreme measures would divide Taiwanese society.There is also a possibility that many of Taiwan's leaders would leave if the going got tough. An unusually high number of prominent people hold foreign passports.

Taiwan keeps "pushing the limit, testing China's response to see where the trigger point is", Mr Yang said. If it accidentally goes too far, some people on the island believe the US will come to the rescue. Washington, however, remains adamantly silent on this matter.

Those who are close to US thinking on Taiwan believe, as one put it, that "the US will use force under certain conditions, but we don't what those conditions are". Others firmly rule out the possibility of American intervention. They believe that the overwhelming importance of good US relations with China outweighs any other course.

At the height of the Cold War, Taiwan was a bastion against the advance of Communism, a situation reflected in the Mutual Security Pact between Taiwan and the US. But the Cold War is over and the defence agreement was abandoned long ago. Taiwan looks thoroughly exposed.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us