China Gears Up For
Taiwan Showdown

By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING (Reuters) - When China holds war games on Dongshan island off its southeastern coast this month, its SU-27 fighters will battle for air superiority and back up an amphibious landing in a mock invasion of Taiwan.
Convinced that Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian will push for statehood during his second four-year term, China is readying for a showdown with the island which Beijing has claimed as its own since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Booming China wants to avoid conflict, analysts say. The ball is in Taiwan's court -- whether conflict breaks out hinges on how far Chen pushes the envelope.
"They do not wish to use force...This is not their preferred course of action. But they are preparing for worst-case scenarios," said David Shambaugh, an expert on the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at George Washington University.
"I've been coming to China every year for the last 25 years, I have never sensed a higher level of anxiety over the Taiwan issue than at the present time."
Chen's predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, has played down the threats and likened China to a "barking dog that won't bite."
Taiwan has apparently been emboldened by President Bush's pledge to do whatever it takes to help the self-ruling democratic island defend itself, but analysts said it may be miscalculating Beijing's resolve.
"The danger of war truly exists," said Wang Jisi, director of the Institute of International Strategy at the Central Party School, which trains Communist apparatchiks.
"We're not a paper tiger. We're a real tiger," he said, adding that China needs to "strengthen the credibility" of its longstanding threat to attack if Taiwan declares statehood.
Lee dismissed Chinese threats after war games following his landmark U.S. visit in 1995 mellowed into little more than a war of words when he, and later Chen, pushed for independence.
Taiwan's leaders are betting that China will not risk breakneck growth, which is needed to create enough jobs, avert social unrest and perpetuate Communist Party rule.
Military conflict would certainly invite a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and diplomatic isolation worse than in the years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were crushed.
Instability would drive away foreign investors and Taiwanese who have poured $100 billion into China since the late 1980s. It would also rattle the global chip industry and financial markets.
Taiwan, armed to the teeth with U.S. and French jet fighters and warships, is counting on U.S. help in the event of conflict. Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but remains Taiwan's biggest arms supplier and ally.
"The chances of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan before 2012 are very low" because the PLA is incapable of taking on the United States, said Chong-Pin Lin, a former Taiwan deputy defense minister. He did not rule out more saber rattling.
But Kenneth Lieberthal, a Sinologist at the University of Michigan, said Taiwan is wrong when it assumes Beijing is "all bluff when it talks about the use of force."
"The second assumption is: if the first assumption is wrong, then Chen nevertheless has a military blank check from the United States...I believe both assumptions are wrong," he said.
Washington has no desire to be dragged into a conflict with China over Taiwan. But the three are faced with a potentially vicious circle: Taiwan flirts with independence, leading to Chinese invasion threats which force the United States to back the island which in turn further emboldens Taipei.
Chen appears determined to adopt a new constitution in 2008, a move seen by Beijing as a formal declaration of independence.
China on the other hand has painted itself into a corner by beating the drums of war. No Chinese leader can afford to be seen as weak by giving in on the mission of reunification.
Beijing does not trust Chen, but he believes it will eventually deal with him. "The chances of dialogue resuming will be high after the year-end parliamentary elections and the U.S. elections," a senior Taiwan government source told Reuters. (Additional reporting by John Ruwitch and Juliana Liu)
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