Monday, October 13, 2003

China is set to hold large-scale military exercises aimed at stepping up pressure on Taiwan’s government, U.S. officials said yesterday.

About 100,000 Chinese troops are expected to take part in the war games, to be held in China’s Fujian province, facing the island of Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait.

“This is almost an annual event,” said a senior U.S. defense official.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it appears that the Chinese are trying this year to be more “open and visible” about the exercises.

“The feeling is that perhaps they are being more open in response to [Republic of China (Taiwan) President] Chen Shui-bian and his current statements that lean toward independence,” the official said.

The official said U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Chinese may be conducting an “information operation” using the war games as a tool.

Mr. Chen said in a speech in Taiwan last week that “Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country” that “has long been neglected by the international community.”

“We are prevented from entering the [United Nations], denied membership in the World Health Organization and constantly face the threat of a missile attack from China,” he said.

Mr. Chen also wants to hold a vote on a new constitution that he said would “transform Taiwan into a normal, great country.”

“We hope that by writing a new constitution, we can deepen the democratization of our constitutional system,” Mr. Chen said Oct. 4.

The remarks drew a harsh rebuke from Beijing, which views the island as a breakaway province.

A Chinese government spokesman said Mr. Chen’s comments had heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait and were “extremely dangerous.”

Chinese war games in 1996 triggered what became known as the Taiwan Strait crisis of that year. China test-fired short-range missiles north and south of Taiwan during the exercises, which were held around the time of upcoming Taiwanese elections.

The U.S. government responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.

Officials said the latest exercises will begin later this month.

The annual exercises are “always fairly large-scale” and the exact scenario is difficult to determine, the official said.

However, the official said, “They have all the appearance of focusing on a cross-Strait” conflict scenario.

Another U.S. official said the upcoming exercises are not unusual for the Chinese military. “The Chinese army does exercise a lot in the summer [and] in the fall,” the official said.

A recent Pentagon report on China’s military stated that Chinese war games “increasingly focus on the United States as an adversary and on preparing for combined arms and joint operations under more-realistic conditions.

“Over the past few years, Beijing’s military training exercises have taken on an increasingly real-world focus, emphasizing rigorous practice and operational capabilities, and improving incrementally the military’s actual ability to use force,” the report said. “These actions are aimed not only at Taiwan, but also at increasing the risk to U.S. forces and to the United States itself in any future Taiwan contingency.”

Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, which first reported the upcoming exercises, stated that the war games will practice surprise attacks on Taiwan. Several Chinese army groups and a missile unit will participate.

China’s last major war games near Taiwan were in May last year and involved amphibious-assault operations, as well as aerial raids and other ground-forces maneuvers.

The State Department announced Tuesday that it had granted a transit visa to Mr. Chen to permit the leader to make stops in Alaska and New York next month as part of a visit to Panama.

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