Fri, Mar 03, 2006 - Page 8 News List

PLA general helped prevent a war

By Tung Chen-yuan 童振源

Local media have recently revisited the story of how People's Liberation Army (PLA) Major General Liu Liankun (劉連昆) helped Taiwan resolve the 1996 missile crisis by providing Taipei with valuable secret intelligence that the missiles lobbed into the waters off Taiwan were dummies. This was important information, but it also raises questions about why Beijing -- after having threatened Taipei incessantly before the military exercise -- used dummy missiles, and what its real intent was.

In response to then-president Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) visit to the US, China held six military exercises targeting Taiwan between July 1995 and March 1996. In particular, in an attempt to influence Taiwan's presidential election, China fired three guided missiles into the sea lanes a few dozen kilometers off Kaohsiung and Keelung between Mar. 8 and Mar. 18, 1996. Between Mar. 12 and Mar. 20, the PLA held a military exercise involving its army, navy and air forces near Pingtan Island in Fujian Province, less than 19km from the islands off the Chinese coast that are under Taiwan's control.

Starting in early 1996, China escalated its military threats against Taiwan. Many Chinese media outlets ran stories saying that, "the Chinese people will not hesitate to spill their blood and sacrifice their lives to protect the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity." Add to this that a year earlier, a bestselling book in Taiwan called The Intercalary August of 1995 predicted that China would retake Taiwan by military force in 1995. This had people worrying that they were running out of time, and both the stock exchange and currency market took a drubbing.

One could say that China achieved what it wanted with its threats against Taiwan. Liu's information, however, helped the government stiffen its resolve, and view China's actions as psychological warfare, not a prelude to an attack. Taiwan and the US were not the only ones concerned that war might begin at any moment. China was even more cautious, and worried that its exercises would set off a chain of misunderstandings that would lead to a military conflict involving all three countries.

In February 1996, the US embassy in Beijing learned that China was not planning an attack on Taiwan, but never managed to fully verify the information.

In February and March, China sent its vice minister of foreign affairs and later ambassador to the US, Li Zhaoxing (李肇星), and Li Huaqiu (李華秋), director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China's State Council, to Washington for a series of secret talks with officials from the US state and defense departments, as well as the National Security Council.

In these meetings, Chinese officials gave the US solemn promises that the military and missile exercises would be limited in time, scope and geographic location. They made unequivocal guarantees that the PLA would not attack Taiwan, while at the same time urging the US not to interfere in the cross-strait conflict.

According to the spokesperson at the US defense department at the time, Beijing told the US in all official and private talks that China did not plan to attack Taiwan. The PLA field commander even issued strict orders that troops participating in the exercises should avoid anything that might "worsen the situation" and do anything in their power to minimize the risk of anything "unforeseen" occurring.

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