President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan today publicly played down the significance of recent sorties by Chinese jet fighters over the Taiwan Strait, in an apparent effort to combat what Taiwan views as a campaign of psychological warfare by the Chinese government.
Since July 9, Chinese fighters have flown more than 100 sorties along the middle of the 100-mile-wide waterway. These uncustomary flights have been part of a show of force following Lee's call for "special state-to-state" relations with China, repudiating Beijing's view of Taiwan as a wayward Chinese province.
Lee told an audience of government officials that Chinese fighter jets crossed the dividing line on the Taiwan Strait on two recent occasions, but he dismissed the brief incursions into Taiwan's airspace as mistakes by Chinese pilots. The Defense Ministry also announced that it has detected no sign that China is preparing an invasion, and said China's military does not appear to be planning to conduct large-scale war games in the strait similar to those in 1995 and '96.
The official assurances were aimed at reducing tensions inside Taiwan following a barrage of Chinese rhetoric and rumors that sent the island's stock market down 15 percent in the past month and heightened the fear of war among its 21 million residents.
"The Communists are very good at propaganda and psychological warfare," said a Taiwanese official who asked not to be identified. "They make it look like war is really going to happen to scare people here."
Beijing views Taipei's comments on relations between the two as a step toward a formal declaration of independence, which it has repeatedly said would result in an invasion. Beijing considers the self-governing island to be a renegade province and has ridiculed Lee's insistence that the two sides be treated as equals in any talks about reunification.
In the past month, China announced that it possesses neutron bomb technology and has threatened a "calamity" for Taiwan if Lee doesn't reverse his "splittist" course. Hong Kong newspapers with close ties to Beijing have reported rumors of menacing Chinese military movements. A report over the weekend in the Wen Wei Daily said China had moved submarines into "attack positions" in the Taiwan Strait.
Today, China's state-run media intensified their attack on Lee. The New China News Agency called him the "chief criminal" responsible for blocking Taiwan's reunification with China. Military officers in coastal regions near Taiwan were quoted as saying that China is ready to go to war to keep the country together.
"If the central government gives us the word, we would do everything to fight to keep the motherland unified," said Bai Yao, a Chinese navy captain, in the Liberation Army Daily.
China's leaders are gathered at their yearly summer retreat and policy conclave in the seaside resort of Beidaihe. High on the agenda is how to push Taiwan to accept Beijing's "one China" concept that Lee abandoned last month.