On a Gunboat to China; Carriers Deploy as the Pressure on Taiwan Increases

Article excerpt

IT LOOKED LIKE THE KIND OF CONFRONtation that could turn violent, given an accident or a miscalculation on one side or the other. In the East China Sea, the U.S. aircraft carrier Independence patrolled off Taiwan, accompanied by a cruiser, two destroyers, a frigate and an attack submarine. A second task force, led by the carrier Nimitz, was on its way from the Gulf of Oman. And as the Americans deployed their carriers, China announced another round of provocative military exercises, which will be conducted this week as Taiwan goes to the polls to choose its first democratically elected president. China and the United States signaled that they didn't want or expect to fight. But Beijing warned: "China has never promised to give up the use of force."

Both countries were practicing gunboat diplomacy on a grand scale. Last week China held live-fire air and naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait and fired medium-range missiles into impact zones alarmingly close to the island's coast. The Chinese made no secret of their purpose: to intimidate independence-minded Taiwanese voters. U.S. officials thought China's next round of maneuvers, which will come within 11 miles of some small Taiwanese islands, would include such pointedly high-profile exercises as amphibious landings and parachute drops. Taiwanese newspapers even speculated nervously that China might attack the vulnerable offshore islet of Wuchiu.

So far, however, the result of all the bluster was a military standoff. The exercises showed that China still sorely lacks the air and naval power that would be needed for an invasion of Taiwan. And the United States still lacks a sure-fire defense against Chinese missiles, which could severely punish Taiwan, if not subdue it. Politically, another stalemate was achieved. Although the Taiwanese anxiously stocked up on U.S. dollars and gold bars and put their children through air-raid drills, they didn't give in to Chinese bullying. If anything, President Lee Teng-hui--demonized by Beijing as a "secret splitter"--appeared to be gaining strength as this Saturday's election neared. "We are not shrimps with soft legs," Lee boasted.

Beijing's heavy-handedness may have worked against its own interests by encouraging pro-independence forces. Lee, a native-born Taiwanese, has tried to raise the island's international profile, but he adheres to the "one China" principle, under which Taiwan eventually will reunite with the mainland. …