U.S. Holds Tighter To Taiwan's Hand

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U.S. Holds Tighter To Taiwan's Hand

Chinese war games, intended to send a message to Taiwan, prompt a U.S. Navy response on the high seas. The Bush administration meanwhile works behind the scenes on improving military cooperation with Taiwan's forces

By David Lague/HONG KONG and TAIPEI

Issue cover-dated August 30, 2001

AS WARNINGS GO, it could not have been clearer. Like a drumbeat from Hong Kong's pro-Beijing press, China has for months publicized manoeuvres and a massive build-up by the People's Liberation Army culminating in a simulated assault on outlying Taiwanese islands.

At first, the manoeuvres along China's southeast coast--said by one Chinese-language newspaper to be the biggest ever --didn't seem to excite much reaction from Taipei or anyone else. This kind of sabre-rattling has become almost routine, with the PLA frequently rehearsing amphibious landings as part of its long-term strategy aimed at restraining pro-independence sentiment on Taiwan.

On August 17 that changed, when two United States aircraft-carrier battle groups staged a joint one-day exercise in the South China Sea in a show of force that reinforced the right to free navigation and was apparently timed to coincide with the Chinese war games.

The U.S. Navy insisted that the exercises were "not specifically" aimed at China. But for Taipei it was a welcome reminder that U.S. President George W. Bush meant business when in April--at the height of a row with Beijing over a U.S. surveillance aircraft and its crew-- he abandoned Washington's long-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity" and pledged that his administration would do "whatever it took" to defend the island. "China must have got the message: 'Don't do anything silly'," says Taiwanese security expert and lawmaker Parris Chang.

The "message" came in the form of the two U.S. carriers, the Constellation and the Carl Vinson, and more than a dozen other warships and submarines. The U.S. Navy said the two battle groups took the opportunity to conduct a "passing exercise" involving the launching of aircraft as the Constellation was returning to San Diego from the Middle East and the Carl Vinson was en route to the Persian Gulf.

This show of support for Taiwan's security appeared at a time when the island's slumping economy and an exodus of manufacturing to the mainland have increased pressure from some sections of the business community for the government of President Chen Shiu-bian to begin moves toward unity with China.

However, such sentiments fall a long way short of any widespread popular support for reunification. In fact, talk of union with China remains politically suicidal in Taiwan, a fact that forced the opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, earlier this year to unceremoniously dump a proposed move toward confederation with the mainland.

In the meantime, the Bush administration has started working to boost visits and ties with the Taiwan military to ensure the island retains sufficient firepower to resist mainland military pressure, particularly with the PLA continuing its missile build-up along its Taiwan Strait coast.

These exchanges also serve to give the Pentagon a valuable better understanding of military thinking in Taipei. U.S. officials were alarmed during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis (when China fired missiles off Taiwan and held live artillery tests) as there was little understanding in Washington of how Taipei would respond.

Under Bush, stronger support from Washington also serves to boost independence supporters on the island--for instance, Taipei taxi driver Peng Yi-jun, who insists he is Taiwanese, not Chinese. Peng, of course, makes no claim to be a student of great-power rivalry, but he believes that with support from the U.S. and its major allies in Asia including Japan, South Korea and Australia, Taiwan has enough friends to deter any aggression from Beijing. "We don't need to be afraid," he says.

He might be right. In April, Bush decided to supply Taipei with advanced weapons including eight conventional submarines, four Kidd-class destroyers and 12 submarine-hunting P-3 Orion aircraft. The U.S. military is also making a determined attempt to assess fully the military capabilities of Taiwan and make up for serious shortcomings, particularly in communications and operational procedures, that would hinder joint operations in any conflict, according to both U.S. and Taiwanese officials.

The need for this new assistance from Washington arose during former President Bill Clinton's administration, when it became clear that two decades of isolation had undermined the technical capabilities of Taiwan's forces and their capacity to operate with their U.S. counterparts and regional allies.

National Chengchi University security analyst Yuan I believes the Taiwan military also suffered "psychologically" from its lack of contact with the forces of other democracies. The Bush administration's drive to improve the military relationship is a welcome change for senior local commanders. "However, we still lack a formal military defence pact," Yuan says. "At most, we are in the process of regaining our operational dialogue with the U.S. military establishment."

Senior regional defence officials report that a secure communications hotline was established this year between the headquarters of the U.S. 7th Fleet in Honolulu and Taiwan's operational military headquarters. The Pentagon has also given Taipei access to its communications codes, according to a report in April in Jane's Defence Weekly. A Western intelligence source says a joint U.S.-Taiwanese signals-intelligence centre in central Taiwan has been significantly upgraded.

According to Taiwanese media reports, the Pentagon plans to sell Taiwan a $725 million communications network, the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, to allow warships, aircraft and other military units to communicate much more effectively. When asked to comment, Deputy Defence Minister Lt.-Gen. Fu Wei-ku welcomed the sale, saying it would allow local forces to "use the same language and tools as the allies."

In addition, for the first time since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the U.S. is hosting groups of Taiwan officers in exchanges with U.S. military and intelligence officials, U.S. officials say.

In June, a group of 20 Taiwan officers met officials from the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the National Security Council, and visited the Pacific Military Command headquarters in Hawaii. "It is necessary to increase this dialogue and cooperation," says Chang. "I think the U.S. government is very concerned about the balance of power tilting towards China." Along with these moves, Washington continues hosting visits by Taipei's service chiefs for talks on security and Taiwan's arms needs.

Beyond such contacts, it seems that the deployment of two carrier battle groups to the South China Sea has become the Pentagon's standard response to what it considers unnecessary or provocative Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait. Clinton dispatched two carriers to the region during the March 1996 crisis. A similar deployment in August 1999 was in reaction to China's furious response to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's demand that the two sides deal with each other on a state-to-state basis.

For strategic analysts, the reasoning is simple. The combined military might of two carriers, their 150 aircraft and supporting ships along with their capacity to monitor a vast area probably outweighs the firepower of the entire PLA. On other occasions, a single carrier is invariably nearby if tension is high.

Chang, a senior member of parliament's Committee on Foreign Relations, notes that the carrier Kitty Hawk was sent to the South China Sea during last year's presidential election in Taiwan. "From time to time, the U.S. signals to China that Uncle Sam is watching," he says.

Former Clinton administration defence official Kurt Campbell has described the U.S.-China relationship over Taiwan as "the most complex foreign-policy balancing act in the world today." This time, what seems to have tipped Washington's hand was the size and length of the PLA exercises, named Liberation One, on and near China's Dongshan island off the coast of Fujian province.

According to reports in the pro-Beijing media, the exercises began in May and involve more than 100,000 troops along with some of the PLA's most advanced weaponry bought from Russia, including Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, Kilo-class submarines and Sovremenny-class destroyers. The exercise's purported objectives were said to be to simulate attacks on Taiwan's Penghu islands and Taiwan itself.

In July, the emphasis of the Chinese activity reportedly switched to attacking targets at sea. "The exercise was mainly aimed at attacking aircraft carriers and cruisers," Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper said on August 12. "The targets to be attacked were platforms floating in waters around Taiwan Island, thus demonstrating the PLA's strong offensive capabilities and offshore defensive capabilities."

Some regional military observers speculate that this phase, clearly designed as preparation to counter any future U.S. intervention in a cross-strait conflict, could have helped prompt deployment of the carrier battle groups and their exercise as a signal of Washington's resolve.

Nevertheless, no analysts believe that military tension in the region matches the friction in April when a mainland fighter crashed with the loss of its pilot after colliding with a U.S. surveillance aircraft that was forced to land at a Chinese base on Hainan island. "I don't see that there is any immediate threat of confrontation across the Taiwan Strait at the moment," says Yuan.

He argues that China is unlikely to inflame tensions in the run-up to Taiwan's parliamentary elections on December 1 when Taiwanese domestic politics are fluid and highly unpredictable. Threats from the mainland have failed during past elections to boost support for pro-unification forces in Taiwan.

There are also clear signs that Beijing wants better ties with Washington, especially during the current global economic slowdown when the U.S. market remains crucial for Chinese exporters. Bush's visit to China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in October is seen as an opportunity for the leaders of the two countries to work toward a more harmonious relationship.

One piece of evidence indicating that Sino-U.S. ties are on the mend following the April tussle over the EP-3 surveillance aircraft and its crew emerged on August 20. Beijing allowed the carrier Constellation and six support ships to enter Hong Kong for a five-day port visit only days after their exercise in international waters with the Carl Vinson.

But not necessarily, argues Australian security analyst Allan Behm of the Hong Kong visit, which was expected to pump about $4 million into the territory's economy. "China is also capable of strategic ambiguity," he says.


Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper says the latest war games off China's southeastern coast were the largest conducted by the PLA in scale, duration, the number of personnel involved and the advanced weaponry used. The climax was a mock invasion of the Taiwan-controlled Penghu islands watched by top commanders. During the manoeuvres, Beijing allowed U.S. warships to visit Hong Kong but rejected a request for a landing by a U.S. P-3 Orion reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft, which Washington said was on a "routine training mission."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 29, 2001

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