Live-firing tests to seal off sea lanes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 1996, 12:00am

BEIJING last night announced a new round of live-firing military exercises southwest of Taiwan that will seal off half of the southern approach to the Taiwan Strait.

The nine-day manoeuvre of crack navy and air force units starts on Tuesday and lasts until three days before the island's presidential elections on March 23.

The exercises complement missile tests from March 8 to 15, which have already plunged Taiwan into its worst crisis since the shelling of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the late 1950s.

The manoeuvres, at their closest point just 60 kilometres off the Taipei-held Pescadores Islands, cover about 17,500 square kilometres between eastern Guangdong province and the southern tip of Taiwan.

Much of the shipping sailing between Hong Kong and northern ports move through this area.

China had called on all governments to notify shipping and aircraft to keep out of the area, Xinhua (the New China News Agency) said.

Military analysts in Beijing said the missile drill and the new exercise amounted to a sea-and-air blockade of the island.

The analysts said it would be a multi-divisional exercise involving the bulk of the resources of the Nanjing War Zone, which has been in command of nearly 150,000 troops massed along the coast opposite Taiwan since October.

New weapons expected to be deployed included submarines, cruise missiles, Su-27 jet fighters and landing vessels.

Politicians in Taiwan said while Beijing was resigned to the fact that President Lee Teng-hui would be re-elected, it wanted to foment disorder in Taiwan, which might offer it an opportunity to directly intervene.

Mr Lee said the increased mainland threat would not torpedo the impending presidential polls.

He said 'such intimidation will never stop us from pursuing democracy and freedom, dignity and resolution,' adding the island must increase its defence capability to counter threats.

'In the next four years, I think we need to further strengthen our defence power to effectively curtail any intimidation.' Democratic Progressive Party vice-presidential candidate Hsieh Chang-ting said that after Mr Lee's ratings rose, Beijing 'had to call for another exercise to pull his rating down'.

A spokesman for Taipei's Ministry of Defence said its forces were 'already maintaining a state of a high degree of awareness and intensified alert'.

Defence expert Dr Arthur Ding Shu-fan said that open criticism by Chinese President Jiang Zemin of Mr Lee and the new exercise 'make me worry that we are entering a vicious cycle that will be difficult to break'.

Yesterday, the media reported that a fourth missile had landed in one of two splash zones close to the island.

This was in addition to the three projectiles that the Defence Ministry said had landed on Friday in two sea 'boxes', one a mere 20 nautical miles off the northeastern port of Keelung.

Troops on Quemoy, Taiwan's front line with China, practised lobbing artillery at nearby uninhabited islands.

Diplomatic analysts said the new exercise would provoke even more severe international criticism of Beijing's apparent adventurism.

Yesterday, American Defence Secretary William Perry termed the missiles drill 'reckless'.

He revealed that a US guided missile destroyer and cruiser as well as a 'spy' aircraft were keeping the situation under scrutiny.

Senior officials of the United Nations, the European Union and Asian governments called on Beijing to exercise the utmost caution.