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War Games Between China and Taiwan

Prague, Feb. 7 (RFE/RL) - China will leave little to the imagination of the Taiwanese this week when it launches another dazzling display of its military might. What the islanders miss with their own eyes of the exercise, possibly involving 400,000 infantry troops, 100 warplanes and 40 warships off the coast of Taiwan, they can catch on TV.

This latest attempt to bully Taiwan into submission reflects China's growing impatience at the island's efforts to break out of diplomatic isolation and pursue a more independent policy. China regards Taiwan, home to the Nationalist losers of the 1949 civil war, as a renegade province.

Both sides seem in no mood for compromise. The U.S., detecting signs that this time the provocation may lead Taiwan to retaliate, has stepped into the fray, urging both sides to cool down and start talking.

When it happens, this will be the fifth coastal maneuver and missile test by China since last summer. Asian military officials said it will be the largest one to date. It is scheduled to last a month.

China could conceivably decide to prolong the exercise up to the eve of Taiwan's first direct presidential elections on March 23 when the popular incumbent President Lee Teng-Hui is expected to be confirmed. Beijing alleges that that Lee is trying to block reunification with the mainland.

The timing of the exercise is clearly intended to try and instill a mood of caution in the electorate. The Hong Kong-based pro-Bejing newspaper, Sin Tao, said the military exercise is intended to serve as a warning to Lee not to "walk too far on the road to independence."

Previous exercises already appear to have taken a political and economic toll. They were said to have influenced the outcome of November's parliamentary elections, when the pro-Bejing New Party tripled its seats. They were also blamed for the recent plunges in Taiwan's stock market. It is unlikely that China's intended action will seriously weaken Taiwan's resolve this time round. But it is clear that China plans to keep up the pressure until it has its way.

A key date seems to be 1997 - the year Hong Kong returns to the fold. By then, China seems to expect to have won the argument perhaps even forcibly. It hopes Taiwan will agree to join the "motherland" on similar terms to Hong Kong which is allowed to retain its capitalist lifestyle for another 50 years.

Talks on a possible reunification deal beween China and Taiwan had been taking place until relations worsened last summer when the U.S. granted a visa for a private visit to President Lee.

China took offence, interpreting the visit as a sign Taiwan was trying to gain international recognition. China consequently announced that any country seeking diplomatic ties with Beijing had to sever ties with Taiwan.

The U.S. for its part appears to be maintaining what some officials have called "constructive ambiguity" on Taiwan. By appearing to support the island politically or even militarily in the event of a Chinese attack it risks fuelling an independence drive. If it fails to show support, Beijing may think it has nothing to lose from attacking.

What some analysts fear is that China is slowly backing itself into a corner. It cannot be seen to make too many empty threats. It the end war games may not be enough and sooner or later the first shots will be fired in anger.