Mainland Chinese forces yesterday began new live- ammunition military exercises at the south end of the Taiwan Strait, using warships and attack aircraft in Peking's latest attempt to influence the outcome of next week's presidential elections in Taiwan.
The scheduled start of the nine-day war games came as Peking and Washington traded sharp warnings that tensions in the Taiwan Strait were in danger of escalating. Taiwan's Defence Ministry said the manoeuvres involved at least 10 warships and 10 aircraft carrying out bombing and interception missions inside the target zone off China's south-east coast. It said poor weather had limited the number of planes involved. Peking's strategy appears to be to try and frighten Taiwan's voters away from supporting President Lee Teng-hui, who advocates a bigger international role for the island.
In Peking, the Chinese government's sternest words were aimed at Washington, which has sent two aircraft carriers into the region. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang, said: "I want to emphasise here that the US side should be careful of sending a wrong message to the Taiwan authorities that it would support and abet the latter's splittist activities." The term "splittist" is usually used to lambast the Dalai Lama's activities regarding Tibet. Mr Shen added: "If the Taiwan authorities were to misinterpret that message, the real danger would emerge."
With Peking accusing Washington of "supporting and conniving at" Taiwanese separatist activities, the message from the United States was mixed. Sending US aircraft carriers to the vicinity of Taiwan warns the Chinese that they should curtail their military exercises near the island, said General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But, despite the ostentatious build-up of US naval forces near Taiwan, Washington is being deliberately ambiguous over how far it will go to defend the island - both to try and deter China from military action, and to stave off election-year pressures at home for more drastic measures against Peking.
Yesterday, a second US aircraft carrier battle group was on its way to the region from the Persian Gulf, as senior Chinese diplomats on a scheduled visit to Washington were told by a group of senators expert in foreign and security policy that Peking's "provocative and dangerous" behaviour was obliging President Bill Clinton to take tough measures.
But behind the scenes, the Clinton administration is trying to lower the temperature, urging Taiwan to avoid inflammatory action, and seeking to preserve a bipartisan consensus on its handling of the crisis. Thus far, it seems to be succeeding.