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China vs. Taiwan: a Cliffhanger

The mainland has been rattling sabers at the island it lays claim to. Western diplomats in Beijing downplay the threats, but some analysts are expressing alarm.


BEIJING — A port call by a U.S. missile cruiser to the Chinese naval base in Qingdao last year provided a stunning contrast between the two military powers' equipment and attitudes.

As soon as the Aegis-class cruiser Bunker Hill docked, Chinese photographers and television camera operators, some with dubious journalistic credentials, were ushered aboard and allowed to photograph one of America's most state-of-the-art warships from stem to stern.

But U.S. reporters were not permitted to photograph a World War II-era Chinese frigate docked at the same pier. A nervous Chinese naval officer explained that the aging vessel, practically more layers of gray paint than armor, contained secret weaponry.

"But the real reason they didn't want the ship to be photographed," a Western military expert explained later, "was that they didn't want the world to see how bad their equipment is."

The anecdote gives perspective to the fears of war now rising in both China and Taiwan and lapping over onto the Washington political scene. The aggressive military stance recently taken by the Chinese leadership has produced a flood of belligerent rhetoric and alarmist analysis not seen since the end of the Cold War.

As Chinese forces move to the coast for massive maneuvers expected in the next few weeks, Taiwan has placed its military on alert. Republican candidates Steve Forbes and Patrick J. Buchanan have made the China-Taiwan situation an issue in the American presidential election.

However, most Western military analysts contend that, despite its rhetoric, China is severely constrained--both materially and politically--in what its armed forces can actually do with respect to Taiwan, which China considers part of its national territory.

"The Chinese are not stupid," said Michael Swaine, a military expert with Rand Corp. who spent last week interviewing defense officials in Beijing. "They realize that they would lose an enormous amount in a conflict with Taiwan.

"They could not guarantee that they would prevail in such a conflict, certainly without enormous costs," Swaine said. "It could very possibly destroy much of Taiwan; damage a good deal of the southeast coast of China; destroy a relationship with the United States; recreate a Cold War in Asia; and reverse their goals for economic development. These guys are not crazy."

Swaine, who has written extensively on the Chinese military leadership, represents the more restrained school of China military analysis. At the other extreme is Gerald Segal, a military analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"We do not have full-scale war, and we are unlikely to have that," said Segal. "But this is not just posturing. This is a few steps up the ladder of escalation, and we are still moving up. I would not be surprised to see a more limited military operation against the offshore islands, against Taiwanese cargo ships, or China firing a stray missile that hits Taiwan."

Segal likened the current situation to the period before Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the Persian Gulf War.

The Sea Advantage

If a war between China and Taiwan took place on land, it would be no contest. China, with the world's largest army, would easily overwhelm the smaller Taiwanese forces.

But Taiwan is separated from the mainland by more than 100 miles of open sea, and that alone gives it a military parity that otherwise would not exist. In this respect, Taiwan enjoys the same advantage as Britain, historically protected by the narrower English Channel.

Also, China's claims on Taiwan are not as strong as Communist historians assert. The first significant Chinese migration to the island, populated at the time by Taiwanese aborigines, did not come until the 17th century. In 1895, the island was ceded to Japan as one of the spoils negotiated after the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese ruled Taiwan until the end of World War II, when it was given to China. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies fled to the island to escape their Communist foes in 1949.

The current state of affairs was triggered by a series of events:

With Taiwan set to hold its first direct presidential election on March 23, China is preparing to stage military maneuvers across the Taiwan Strait in Fujian province. There is a wide range of speculation about how large the maneuvers will be.

"We've heard everything from 'nothing much' to 'gigantic,' " said a Western diplomat here. Western diplomats in Beijing tend to be less alarmist in their evaluation of the upcoming maneuvers than overseas defense analysts.

Many analysts expect the Chinese to test-fire some of their ballistic missiles, as they did in July after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's controversial visit to the United States.

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