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China warns Taiwan with military exercises
By Yan Hua

HONG KONG - As a pre-election warning to Taiwan's pro-independence forces, China has conducted limited military exercises over coastal areas opposite Taiwan, including parachute landings, beach invasions and air-combat maneuvers, Asia Times Online has learned.

China has ratcheted up its standard gunboat diplomacy - the repeated warnings that it would use force if necessary to unite the island and mainland - more than a month before Taiwanese voters go to the polls on March 20 to elect a president and express their views on nearly 500 Chinese missiles targeted at the island.

Most observers consider the exercises, under way since early this month, a clear warning to separatist and pro-independence forces not to re-elect President Chen Shui-bian and not to vote "yes" in his referendum. It will ask voters whether China should be asked to remove its missiles aimed at Taiwan and, if Beijing refuses, whether Taiwan should seek to buy advanced defensive military arms and technology.

Since early February, many mainland commercial flights have been delayed because the airspace had to be cleared for military exercises, according to airport sources, speaking to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. Most delays were caused by an order from Beijing to impose flight control and empty air space of commercial aircraft, so that the air force could conduct maneuvers along the southeast coast, they said.

One staff member of Shanghai Hongqiao Airport attributed most of the postponements to "flight control", saying that authorities had requested that certain air routes be kept free of commercial traffic to make way for military exercises on the southeast coast.

Commercial air space cleared
For example, on February 9, the frequent commuter flights between Shenzhen and Shanghai were postponed from 9am to 11:30am. Even after 11:30am, flights were delayed for another 40 minutes, and the airport attributed this to flight control. Afterward, the flights resumed their normal schedule.

Similar postponements and delays occurred on February 11 and 13 in commercial flights along the southeast coast, involving flights to and from Shanghai, Xiamen and Fuzhou. The latter two are major cities in Fujian province opposite Taiwan.

Military and political observers consider the flight controls and military exercises as Beijing's initial warning to Taiwan as cross-Strait tensions increase with the approach of the presidential election and referendum. Beijing is opposed to the re-election of President Chen Shui-bian, who is considered a Taiwan separatist, and is fiercely opposed to his referendum on redeployment of Chinese missiles.

During his recent visit to the United States, China's director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, Chen Yunlin, indicated that Beijing would take unspecified preemptive steps if President Chen successfully defended his tenure, according to Taiwan UDNnews on February 8.

On February 10, China News Service gave a detailed account of the People's Liberation Army's recent exercises, underscoring Beijing's long-standing position on the use of force, if Taiwan delays reunification too long. The article said air force drills involved parachute teams, beach landing practice and exercises on confronting an adversary's jet fighters.

Defense minister warns against separatism
Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, who also is vice chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Military Committee and a member of the State Council, said recently in Beijing that steadfast opposition to Taiwan separatism is a precondition for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. His comments were reported on Tuesday on the website of the official Xinhua news agency.

Fuzhou and Xiamen, separated from Taiwan by the Strait, are China's most sensitive military districts. Conducting exercises and announcing a flight control over sensitive air space - just when the Taiwanese election campaign goes into full swing - is considered an obvious warning against Taiwan's referendum and the re-election of President Chen.

Meanwhile, Beijing also used the Hong Kong media to express its concerns that the emotional rhetoric in the Taiwan election will jeopardize cross-Strait relations. "Taiwan's presidential election not only shakes up the ties across the Strait, but also turns up the pro-independence voice that will mislead the people," the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported last Saturday. "The expansion of the separatist movement has dealt a blow to the peaceful unification between the two rims of the Strait," it said.

The newspaper said Chen invoked the referendum law and pressed for the "defensive referendum" so as to provoke Beijing and win votes by creating conflicts. Last December 27, Chen described the election as a "Taiwanese holy war against the Chinese Communist Party" and called on his people to "protest against the CCP through voting".

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