US sends warships to deter attack on Taiwan

Chinese military build-up ahead of presidential election spreads alarm throughout region, Stephen Vines reports

Hong Kong - The confrontation between Taiwan and China is reaching a level where the risk of an accidental clash is as high as that of a deliberate act of provocation, says a senior Western military source based here.

The official said in a private briefing that a number of nations are becoming increasingly worried about mounting military activity across the Taiwan Strait. Tension is higher now than at any time in the past two decades, he said, and is set against a background of uncertainty about the future Chinese leadership after Deng Xiaoping dies.

The Taiwan regime's former protector, the United States, which now recognises the People's Republic as the only legitimate government of China, is seeking to deter Peking from aggressive action by sending the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge, flagship of the 7th Fleet, and some smaller vessels to the area soon. The ship is officially paying a visit to Hong Kong, but Washington is keen to make a highly visible gesture. In December a similar message was delivered when the Nimitz, a large aircraft carrier, made its way through the Taiwan Strait.

The current concern was sparked by reports of a massive Chinese military exercise planned to take place after the Chinese New Year holidays at the end of next week. That is also about a month before Taiwan's first presidential election, which is expected to deliver overwhelming backing to the incumbent, Lee Teng-hui, accused by China of poisoning relations with Peking.

The Hong Kong Sing Tao newspaper published a report saying that the exercise would involve 400,000 troops, but diplomatic sources believe this is exaggerated as it implies the participation of 13 per cent of China's armed forces - more people than Taiwan's entire armed forces.

The most ominous Chinese exercise, among a series which began last August, was held last November when Chinese troops launched a mock invasion of an island 200km from Taiwan. This involved only about 20,000 soldiers and the People's Liberation Army had to mobilise civilian vessels to carry them.

China is evidently keen to maintain the tension. Peking is declining to deny a US report that China was threatening to launch daily missile attacks against Taiwan for 30 days after the presidential election.

Taiwan meanwhile is showing restraint by not holding military exercises of its own, as it did last year, apart from scheduled manoeuvres. The defence ministry also downplayed the reports of new military exercises. However President Lee is stepping up his verbal attacks on China. On Monday he taunted Peking, accusing it of "being scared to death" of Taiwan's ability to hold democratic elections.

President Lee, the first native Taiwanese president, alarms China because of suspicions that he is abandoning his Nationalist party's commitment to the reunification of China and Taiwan. Moreover, his success in regaining international recognition for Taiwan is viewed as undermining Peking's claim to be the sole Chinese sovereign power. The Nationalist regime, expelled from the mainland by the Communist victory of 1949, still claims to be the government of China. Peking's longstanding position is that it will invade only if Taiwan declares itself independent.

Even if Peking does not attack it is succeeding in creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Taipei's stock market has fallen 27 per cent in 12 months.

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