Global Policy Forum

China, US Each Hold Major War Exercises


By John M. Glionna

Los Angeles Times
July 20, 2004

China and the United States are conducting separate military exercises this week in displays of might amid tensions between the mainland and Taiwan over the island's sovereignty, military analysts say.

In a highly unusual move, the Chinese have publicized amphibious military operations being held on mainland-controlled islands in the Taiwan Strait. The war games, which simulate an invasion of Taiwan, involve 18,000 Chinese troops in weeklong land, sea and air maneuvers, according to the state-run media. Beijing's deployment was launched late last week as military chief Jiang Zemin vowed to recover Taiwan by 2020, marking the first time China has set a deadline for reunification. Taiwan has been ruled independently since 1949, when Communist Chinese forces led by Mao Tse-tung defeated Nationalist forces directed by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan. The Chinese consider the island a renegade province.

The U.S. exercise, dubbed Summer Pulse 2004, involves seven aircraft-carrier strike groups, 50 warships, 600 aircraft and 150,000 troops around the globe. It has been described as one of the biggest military exercises ever staged. A U.S. military official on Monday said Summer Pulse was aimed at increasing preparedness for any global crisis, not specifically the China-Taiwan issue. The official said only one aircraft carrier was scheduled to be located in the western Pacific Ocean. "In terms of striking distance from China, the USS Kitty Hawk is the only ship currently operating in that area of responsibility," said Capt. Tom Van Leunen, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. He said the Kitty Hawk was stationed in Japan. "And I can't say how close that ship will get to the coast of Taiwan."

The aircraft carriers George Washington, John C. Stennis, John F. Kennedy, Enterprise, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan will also participate in the exercise, according to a Pentagon news release. Three of the ships will be in the Atlantic Ocean, one in the Persian Gulf and three in the Pacific, including one off Hawaii and one off San Diego.

Military analysts say the war games suggest that rising hostilities across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait may have reached a critical juncture. "Beneath our notice, as the world watched North Korea, the conventional conflict between China and Taiwan could now be well on the way to breaking out into something more serious," said Andrew Tan, a security expert at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. The Pentagon recently held a crisis-simulation drill called Dragon's Thunder in response to the growing tensions between China and Taiwan.

Officials have downplayed the timing of both military exercises, but analysts say few nations - particularly China - believe such reassurances. "Obviously, I don't think anyone buys such remarks," Tan said. "The largest naval exercise the United States has ever held is meant to send a direct signal to the Chinese. It's gunboat diplomacy and its point is to warn China not to step over the mark when it comes to Taiwan."

Some China experts in the United States say the war games are coincidental. "There's been an overreaction by a lot of different groups that somehow these two long-planned military exercises are somehow related to one another or underscore some kind of latent conflict or confrontation between the United States and China," said Bates Gill, a China watcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I don't think that's the case."

Jonathan Pollack, chairman of the strategic research department at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said: "If ever there was a case of mixing apples and oranges, this is it." In the past, the United States has sent an aircraft carrier group to a trouble spot to "show the flag," while in combat it deploys three or four, as it did during the Iraqi conflicts in 2003 and 1991, experts say.

For the U.S., sending more than one or two aircraft carriers near Taiwan's coast "would be very unique," said Andrew Yang, an analyst at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, an independent think tank focused on military issues. He said the Chinese military exercises had been planned in advance and were not staged in response to the American buildup. "But the message to Washington is nonetheless clear - China is ready to back up its political position here," Yang said.

"They want to show the American Congress that China means business, that it's not a paper tiger and its pledge to retake Taiwan is not an empty threat. China also wants to explore the U.S. bottom line: Are the Americans ready to confront China militarily for the sake of Taiwan?"

Beijing considers Summer Pulse an act of intimidation, according to recent editorials in government-run newspapers here. Calling American support for Taiwan the most sensitive issue in U.S.-Chinese relations, Beijing on Monday also responded angrily to a U.S. congressional resolution last week reaffirming a promise to supply arms to Taiwan. The resolution also expressed concern about China's deployment of 500 missiles directed at Taiwan. "We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition" to the U.S. resolution, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said in a statement posted on the ministry's website. Zhang called on the Bush administration to oppose the measure and show continued support for its "one-China policy." During a recent Beijing visit, U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice reportedly reiterated Washington's respect for the policy.

China-Taiwan tensions flared in March after the reelection of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Beijing last week also angrily criticized future Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for meeting with Chen and other Taiwan leaders during a three-day visit to the island. "The mainland is becoming far more assertive over this issue," Tan said. "Normally they might endure such a visit to Taiwan by a foreign leader. But now they are so furious, this has led to a crack in China-Singapore relations."

Chinese media reported that Taiwan's military would participate in the U.S. exercises. Chinese officials did not return calls Monday. A spokesman for the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense refused to comment. Van Leunen, the U.S. military spokesman, said that while several foreign nations, including Britain and Canada, were taking part in Summer Pulse, Taiwan was not among them.

In 1996, the United States sent two aircraft-carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait after China tested ballistic missiles near several of Taiwan's ports. The government-run People's Daily published an editorial last week suggesting that the current U.S. military exercise "exposes a wild ambition for world domination."

Military chief and ex-Communist Party leader Jiang also addressed the reunification problem in a speech to military decision makers last week, saying that the period "before or after 2020 is the time to resolve the Taiwan issue," according to a Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper. "China is targeting 2020 because it figures that by that time it will be much stronger economically and militarily," Yang said. "They don't think they have the strength yet to compete with any U.S. intervention. But they're imploring the military to speed up that process."

Tan said Taiwan was escalating the tensions by underestimating the fierce sense of nationalism that permeates the mainland on the subject of reunification with the island. "No matter what their political background, whether they're Communist supporters or not, people on the mainland believe that Taiwan is part of China, and they support the use of military force to get it back," he said. "I don't think the Taiwanese appreciate the pitch of the fervor."

In the Chinese military's mock invasion of Taiwan, SU-27 fighter jets will reportedly support an amphibious landing on Dongshan Island, about 170 miles off the Taiwanese coast, state-run media said. On Monday, however, Dongshan appeared quiet. Shen Lili, an island travel service worker, said, "I can't see anything. And this is a military secret. We are not supposed to look anyway."

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