Monday, March 15, 2004

China’s military is not using war games to threaten Taiwan before the island’s elections, though Bush administration officials said yesterday that Beijing clearly supports the opposition party.

“There’s no question who Beijing wants to win,” said one official, adding that there is no evidence of covert Chinese efforts to influence Saturday’s vote in the Republic of China.

China used war games in 1996 and 2000 to try to influence Taiwan’s elections, but the efforts apparently backfired.

China would like to see Taiwanese voters choose the opposition Kuomintang Party, known as KMT, instead of re-electing President Chen Shuibian’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which Beijing views as moving the island toward formal independence.

National security officials in the Bush administration are monitoring the Taiwan Strait for any signs that Beijing may attempt to influence the elections and a key referendum on the threat posed by China’s short-range missiles, which are targeting the island.

One of the U.S. officials said there are signs China might try to provoke a crisis if Mr. Chen is re-elected over KMT challenger Lien Chan.

The race is said to be too close to call, officials said.

“We’re confident that China will act prudently,” said a second administration official involved in Taiwan Strait policy. “We’re confident that China will not act to precipitate a crisis in which they would certainly emerge as the loser.”

A third official said China’s communist leaders have failed to grasp democratic processes.

“They don’t understand them in Hong Kong, they don’t understand them in Taiwan,” the third official said. “The belief in Beijing is that as long as you have a favorable party in place, it would put the lid on what appears to be a movement of [Taiwanese] people away from the mainland.”

The officials spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity.

China is continuing to threaten the use of force against Taiwan and is backing up the threats with large-scale weapons purchases and new missile and aircraft deployments, the officials said.

China has about 500 short-range missiles deployed near Taiwan and is adding up to 75 missiles a year, the officials said. China’s missiles, which are increasing in range, accuracy and lethality, include new precision-guided warheads and warheads designed specifically to attack airfield runways, the officials said.

The key issue up for a vote in Taiwan is whether the island should invest in missile defenses.

One of two referendum questions asks voters whether Taiwan should purchase advanced antimissile systems if China refuses to withdraw its missiles from areas near Taiwan. The second referendum is on whether the government should negotiate with Beijing.

The Bush administration has increased arms sales and other defense cooperation with Taiwan. It also is trying to help Taiwan boost its defenses.

“What Beijing needs to understand is that the reason we’re doing what we’re doing with Taiwan is because of them. It’s because of the increasing threat that they pose to Taiwan,” one official said.

The main system under consideration for sale to Taiwan is the Patriot PAC-3, the most advanced missile-defense system in the U.S. arsenal.

In 1996, China sought to influence the outcome of presidential elections by holding large-scale war games near Taiwan. The exercises included short-range missile tests that landed north and south of the island.

The war games might have contributed to the election of pro-independence President Lee Tenghui, and they touched off a crisis with the United States, which sent two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the region.

In 2000, China scaled back its exercises but continued deploying missiles within striking distance of Taiwan, a move that was followed by the election of Mr. Chen.

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