- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

TAIPEI, Taiwan China's emergence as a regional power and its projection of military force in the South China Sea have raised fears of additional incidents similar to the collision between a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese jet fighter.

Throughout the 12-day standoff, nations in the region kept a low profile, as if maintaining a studied neutrality over the spat between Washington and Beijing.

Nevertheless, Asian countries share a growing concern over China's military modernization and expansion, said Lo Chih-cheng, chief of planning and research for Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"It's a particular problem for us," Mr. Lo said. "If there were a similar incident involving Taiwan and China, we don't have established confidence-building measures or channels of communications to help cool things down."

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has renewed calls for contacts between Taipei and Beijing that would prevent any such incident from escalating into a major confrontation. But past suggestions for such contacts by Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province, have been ignored.

The Taiwan government said little during the standoff over the U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance plane forced to make an emergency landing April 1 on China's Hainan Island.

But any dispute involving Beijing and Washington also roils feelings on this democratic island-nation of 22 million people just 100 miles from the mainland.

While Washington has renewed past promises not to use arms sales to Taiwan as a bargaining chip with Beijing, many people here fear President Bush might waver when he decides later this month on the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan.

"Taiwan's proximity to China and its dependence on U.S. support and arms inevitably makes people here insecure," said a longtime Western observer. "The fears are there, even if there's no evidence of the U.S. making an accommodation to China at Taiwan's expense."

Officially, Taiwan's government said it was "delighted" by the release of the 24 U.S. fliers, who arrived in Hawaii yesterday for debriefing. But there is unease here among people accustomed to standoffs with Beijing, which has increased missile deployments along its coast, in striking distance of Taiwan.

"We're facing a period of uncertainty," said Joseph Wu, deputy director of the Institute for International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "There's some anxiety that we could be sacrificed in a deal between two superpowers."

Beyond Taiwan, the release of the U.S. airmen and an agreement to begin U.S.-China talks on Wednesday over the detained Navy surveillance plane and other issues have generated a mixed response.

"China teaches the U.S. a lesson on sovereignty," said a headline in the Singapore's Straits Times daily.

South Korea's mass-circulation Hankook Ilbo newspaper also hailed the U.S.-Chinese deal as a "victory for China" because of Washington's expression that it was "very sorry" for a Chinese pilot's death and the U.S. plane's landing without verbal permission.

The Australian, a national daily newspaper, criticized China for detaining the U.S. crew without legal basis. "One of the harsh realities the spy plane crisis in Hainan reveals is just how little store the Chinese leadership sets by international law and how much in the crude use of power," it said in an editorial.

Ming Pao Daily News, a pro-Beijing newspaper published in Hong Kong blamed Mr. Bush's "arrogance" for causing the diplomatic dispute.

While the United States has emerged as the lone global superpower in the post-Soviet era, China has developed into a regional power and an economic giant.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, from Vietnam to the coast of Malaysia and Brunei, then on to the west coast of the Philippines. The United States and other Asian nations do not recognize the claim.

But it provides the basis for China's aggressive stance in the South China Sea, where it has occupied several of the Spratly Islands.

Portions of the Spratlys, a group of more than 100 islets, reefs and shoals that sit astride sea lanes that are a vital link between the Pacific and Indian oceans, are claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Middle East oil bound for Japan, Korea and Taiwan travels the route, as do Asian goods bound for Western markets.

An estimated $100 billion of oil reserves are believed to be locked beneath the floor of the South China Sea.

The Chinese have built a helicopter pad, gun turrets and a communications center on what Beijing previously described as a "fishing outpost" on disputed Mischief Reef.

The speck of land is within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, which claims it, and more than 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland.

Years before, China occupied the strategically located Paracel Islands, a few hundred miles to the north and claimed by Vietnam.

"China has sent a clear message that it is going to take a firmer approach in the South China Sea," said Andrew Yang, director of the Chinese Council on Advanced Policy Studies. "It's saying: 'Were a regional power and we should be respected.' "

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