US steps in to curb China's rage at Taiwan

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

TERESA POOLE

Peking

In a delicate diplomatic balancing act, the US is trying to ease tensions between China and Taiwan, while stepping up its pressure on Peking to improve its human rights record and cease its violations of treaties on international trade and weapons non-proliferation.

Senior Clinton-administration officials will be making these concerns plain to the deputy Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, who is visiting Washington this week. Mr Li's trip comes amid reports of planned large- scale naval manoeuvres by the Chinese in the straits separating Taiwan from the mainland, and carefully leaked warnings by Peking that it has readied plans to crush the island regime by military means if necessary - both clearly designed to intimidate Taiwan's assertive President Lee Teng-hui.

According to the Washington Post yesterday, the administration's priority is to "calm down" the frictions over Taiwan, which have caused near panic in some Asian financial markets, by persuading the Chinese that everyone - including Peking - would suffer from any destabilisation of the region.

But this will not be easy, given the list of grievances with which Mr Li will be presented; it includes new evidence that his country is flouting arms proliferation controls, and accuses China of ignoring its 1995 undertaking to halt pirating of US-patented CDs and other electronic goods. Although the White House is reported to have dropped plans to impose a deadline, Mr Li will be told that his country will face severe economic sanctions if it fails to halt the illegal production.

Simultaneously, fresh trouble is brewing over Chinese weapons exports to Iran and Pakistan. Last week, the commander of US forces in the Gulf claimed Peking had sold advanced cruise missiles to the Iranians, while the CIA is complaining about alleged Chinese sales to Pakistan of uranium enrichment equipment.

China's land, sea and air exercises are being timed to have the maximum impact on Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections, scheduled for 23 March. Taiwan's defence ministry yesterday said troops deployed on the mainland opposite Taiwan had not shown any irregular movements. But the island's stock market fell sharply after a report in the Hong Kong Sing Tao newspaper that 400,000 Chinese troops were massing.

After President Lee's visit to the US in June last year enraged Peking's leaders, the Chinese army test-fired missiles into the sea around Taiwan. Then in September land and sea exercises left the Taiwanese in no doubt of China's intentions should the island declare independence. President Lee, the expected winner of the March polls, yesterday dismissed the upcoming drills. "They are scared to death of our historic presidential election," he said.

All parties are trying to calm the situation. President Lee has recently let the Clinton administration know that he does not plan a visit to the US after the election, thereby defusing the most likely trigger for a dangerous escalation in the cross-straits friction. Similarly, Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives and leader of the militant Republican friends of Taiwan, last week indicated that Congress would not issue its own invitation to a re-elected President Lee.

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