Thursday, April 17, 2008

The United States sent three aircraft carrier strike groups to waters around Taiwan after China told U.S. officials last year there was high risk of a military incident after Taiwan’s March 22 presidential election, according to Pentagon and military officials.

One strike group has been redeployed to the Persian Gulf since the failure of an election-day referendum strongly opposed by Beijing, but two groups remain near the island, the officials said. The Chinese warning, described in a March 31 Pentagon report to Congress, said the danger period would continue until the inauguration of the new Taiwan government next month.

Chinese Embassy Press Counselor Wang Baodong said last night that his government thinks the situation in the Taiwan Strait is “a bit more relaxed” since the defeat of the referendum, which Beijing saw as a step toward independence. “But we still think that the situation is very sensitive and complicated,” he said.

Mr. Wang declined to comment on the deployment of the three aircraft carrier strike groups, led by the USS Kitty Hawk, the USS Nimitz and the USS Abraham Lincoln.

The American military officials said U.S. fears had been heightened shortly before the election, in which a pro-independence party’s presidential candidate was defeated, because U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Chinese mobile short-range missile units within range of Taiwan had been moved to a heightened alert status.

The activity was interpreted as a signal that China might try to intimidate the Taiwan government and people with missile test firings, as occurred before their 1996 presidential election, or in the worst case, an actual attack. China has between 900 and 1,000 missiles deployed within range of the island that Beijing considers a breakaway province.

The Chinese warning was described in an 11-page report on U.S.-China military exchanges sent to Congress two weeks ago from Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

Chinese officials described the Taiwan Strait situation as “increasingly dangerous” during one such military exchange in 2007, the report said.

“Chinese officials assessed as ‘high,’ the risk of an ‘incident’ occurring during the time between the March 2008 election and the May 2008 Taiwan presidential inauguration, and called on the United States to make more direct and open statements opposing the referendum [on United Nations membership] at higher levels than the United States has previously issued,” the report said.

The referendum asked whether the island’s government should seek to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan, instead of its formal name the Republic of China, a move Beijing regarded as a step toward formal independence. The vote failed to approve the measure.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the concerns about Chinese military activity in the Strait were mainly focused on the referendum.

“We were taking appropriate precautions leading up to the vote last month in Taiwan,” Mr. Morrell said. “We are pleased that since then tensions have diminished considerably, but they will remain, albeit at a much lower level, until the inauguration.”

The large display of naval firepower has gone largely unnoticed in the U.S. press, but state-run Chinese news media have called the carrier deployments saber rattling.

The Kitty Hawk strike group is deployed to waters northeast of Taiwan and the Nimitz strike group is in the region southeast of the island, according to defense officials. The Lincoln and its escort warships currently are near Singapore on the way to the Persian Gulf.

A Pacific Command spokesman had no comment, but noted that Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, addressed the Taiwan Strait tension during House Armed Services Committee testimony March 12.

Adm. Keating said he hoped the referendum would fail because “if it passes, China will likely take some significant umbrage at the passage and their response is unpredictable.”

“We are prepared for various alternatives at the Pacific Command, military options,” Adm. Keating said. “We have forces that are positioning in anticipation of potential activity. I do not foresee it happening, but the Chinese have made it clear to us that they view this referendum with some concern. Should it pass, their response is unpredictable and it could potentially include a military option.”

Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the report to Congress raises questions on why the Pentagon wants to increase military exchanges with the People’s Liberation Army.

“Is there still a ‘high’ risk of an ‘incident,’ or PLA attack against Taiwan leading up to the May 20 presidential inauguration? If there is, then why is the administration planning a 68 percent increase in U.S. military contacts with the PLA?” Mr. Fisher said.

The report on military exchanges made no mention of China’s refusal to allow the Kitty Hawk to make a scheduled port call in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving Day, or its earlier refusal to permit two U.S. warships to seek shelter from a storm in Hong Kong.

The report said China canceled eight scheduled exchanges to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, but concluded that exchanges last year showed “positive momentum.”

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