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China Updates Navy, Adding Pressure on Taiwan - 2002-11-01

China is using some new naval maneuvering to increase political and military pressure on Taiwan. Taiwan is responding with major changes in its military to protect its vulnerable commerce.

A military band welcomes Chinese warships to the port of Qingdao after the Chinese navy's first around-the-world voyage.

A few weeks later, Taiwan's defense ministry says Chinese naval units are again far from their home ports, operating off Taiwan's east coast, in places where they have rarely been seen before.

Experts say these activities are steps in the Chinese navy's evolution from a small coastal defense force to a powerful, modern fleet. The actions send a message to Taiwan and Washington that China's navy is growing bolder and more threatening.

China's navy has been rapidly modernizing in recent years, spending billions of dollars on advanced surface ships and submarines from Russia. Naval expert Erich Shih, who writes for Defense International magazine, says China's People's Liberation Army still can not invade Taiwan, but the navy could strangle the island's economy by blocking merchant ships carrying exports.

"If the PLA navy launches blockade operations, it will be a very serious problem for Taiwan," Mr. Shih said. Beijing has pushed to modernize its huge military since its generals were stunned by the success of high-technology U.S. weapons in the Gulf War. Previously, China relied on massive numbers of soldiers armed with relatively simple weapons. With an updated navy, Beijing hopes to be seen as a counterbalance to the United States' Pacific fleet.

But the prospect of a stronger Chinese navy has Taiwan rushing to stay ahead. Taiwan Defense Minister Tang Yao-ming says gaining naval superiority is the new top priority for his government, and will be the top concern for the next 10 years.

Taiwan split politically from mainland China at the end of a civil war in 1949, when Nationalist forces fled the victorious Communist Party. Beijing considers the island part of its territory, and has said it would use force if necessary to retake control.

Taiwan's government has been haggling with Washington over the cost of the biggest weapons package the United States has offered to sell Taiwan in a decade. It includes large ships and aircraft designed to hunt submarines that might threaten shipping. It also includes advanced diesel-powered submarines.

This week, Taiwan's Parliament agreed to spend $818 million to buy four used warships from the United States.

It is taking some time to work out other details of the package because the United States no longer makes diesel submarines. Other nations are reluctant to anger China by building them for Beijing's rival. China strongly objects to weapons sales of any kind to Taiwan.

Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei says Taiwan should act now to strengthen its navy, because any perceived weakness would invite military action from China.

"We don't know when and how they are going to launch their attack, but when the situation is in favor of Beijing to use force, they will use it."

Professor Yang and other analysts, however, say cross-strait relations are relatively calm now. That is in part because China is preoccupied with a coming change in leadership and problems maintaining economic growth.

A top U.S. intelligence official recently told Congress that major military action between Taiwan and China is unlikely in the near future, unless Taiwan angers Beijing by formally declaring independence.