- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

BEIJING — In the run-up to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to the United States last week, Chinese civilian and military leaders clearly announced their willingness to use force to prevent Taiwan’s independence, although China’s capability to make good on such threats remains very much in doubt.

From the mainland’s perspective, Taiwan is a piece of unfinished business from China’s civil war in the mid-20th century. It is an internal affair and not subject to outside interference.

For Americans, Taiwan has evolved from a bulwark of anti-communism dating from the Cold War era to a vibrant democracy in modern Asia.

In an interview with U.S. reporters before his departure for the United States, Mr. Wen said Taiwan was the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations, and expressed the hope that his American counterparts would recognize the gravity and danger of provocative remarks by President Chen Shui-bian, whom Mr. Wen referred to as “the leader of the Taiwan authorities.”

Mr. Chen is running for re-election in March 2004 on a platform that includes promoting greater Taiwanese sovereignty via a referendum.

The most crucial question, Mr. Wen said, would be measures that China might take if Taiwan declares independence.

“The Chinese people will pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland,” he said.

These sentiments were echoed days before Mr. Wen’s departure by members of China’s armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in Outlook Weekly, a government magazine.

Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences was quoted as saying a boycott of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 was something China was willing to risk to keep Taiwan from declaring independence. The country also would risk cuts in foreign investment, downgraded foreign relations, an economic recession and “necessary” military casualties.

Another official from the academy, Col. Luo, was quoted as saying that “Chen has touched the bottom line on the Taiwan question,” adding: “If [Taiwan politicians] refuse to come to their senses and continue to use referendums as an excuse to seek Taiwan independence, they will push Taiwan compatriots into the abyss of war.”

A Western diplomat in Beijing said on the condition of anonymity that the Chinese military lacks the capabilities to back up its war of words on the battlefield.

“They’ve got plenty of missiles aimed at Taiwan that can do damage, but the PLA doesn’t have the means of amphibious assault to take the island,” the diplomat said. “Without this, preventing independence is problematic,” he added.

In September, Robert Karniol, Asia/Pacific Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, spoke to reporters in Beijing about China’s military potential and said the key point is uncertainty.

“Most analysts take the view China can’t successfully invade Taiwan, but some argue they can, and the PLA people will argue they can, but the argument is irrelevant,” Mr. Karniol said.

“What is relevant is they can’t win with certainty, and if they can’t win with certainty, the leadership can’t take the chance because they’re the guys that are going to fall,” he said.

Mr. Karniol said, “I cannot believe the Chinese leadership would set a course of military action without knowing as near a certainty as possible, since nothing is absolutely certain, that they are going to win.”

He said that if China went to war against Taiwan and lost, the Chinese leadership would fall and the role of the party seriously would be threatened.

At the meeting with reporters, Mr. Karniol was asked whether China was capable of invading Taiwan and what role U.S. bases in Japan might play in such a conflict.

“With respect to potential scenarios in a confrontation between China and Taiwan, I don’t see at present that the Chinese have yet developed the capability to successfully conquer Taiwan.”

He added that China would want to avoid going toe-to-toe with the United States. “That argues against a pre-emptive attack against American bases in Japanese territory, but if the U.S. does intervene, there are certainly high-priority targets, no question.”

“The reason for an attack against Okinawa is the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), which functions as a rapid-reaction force able to respond to requirements around the region,” he said, adding, “besides the MEF, Yokosuka, headquarters of the 7th Fleet, would have a significant role to play.”

However, Mr. Karniol added, “the Chinese won’t launch pre-emptive strikes against these places because I don’t think they would want to draw the Americans into a conflict unless they really have to.”

Regarding the purpose of Mr. Wen’s four-day visit to Washington last week, it seems likely that he was gauging the Bush administration’s response to China’s position on the Taiwan issue. After making a speech at Harvard University on Wednesday, Mr. Wen went on to visit Canada and Mexico.

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