Over the past six months, China has intensified its military exercises in the Taiwan Strait as a subtle threat to Taiwan in advance of next year's elections and plans for a referendum on UN membership, raising the prospects of heightened cross-strait military tensions through next spring, a leading Taiwan expert said in Washington on Monday.
"The next six months will be a critical period for cross-strait relations," Andrew Yang (
"For the past six months or so, the military in Taipei has witnessed `unusual military exercises being conducted' in the coastal regions facing Taiwan," he said.
"The Taiwanese military is concerned that with the exercises, the PLA [People's Liberation Army] is enhancing its readiness for some sort of action against Taiwan. They're really worried about it," he said.
The leadership in Beijing, "is demanding that the military upgrade their readiness to face any political fallout [from next year's presidential election and the UN resolution]," he said.
The military exercises, Yang said, "send a signal to Taipei that Beijing is intensifying its preparations, their readiness to use force ... and their will to use force" if they deem Taiwan to be moving toward independence.
The "tendency toward escalation" over the next six to eight months "could make the Taiwan Strait a potential flashpoint for both sides," Yang said.
He said the exercises detected by the Ministry of National Defense have included an increasing number of air sorties to the middle line of the Taiwan Strait and beyond that line, as well as "naval exercises symbolizing efforts to facilitate the use of force."
They have also involved drills with live fire, "which [the Taiwan military] considers unusual compared to the past."
"Because in the past six months that has been the case and it has never happened before, so obviously it is closely related to the political situation [in Taipei], especially the elections," Yang said.
Alan Romberg, a leading US scholar of US-Taiwan relations, agreed with Yang.
In the exercises "there is an implicit threat to use force, and certainly to take some significant step if the referendum passes," he said.
"If the PRC [People's Republic of China] were to move in that direction, by actually using or threatening to use serious force, that contains within it the potential for serious consequences not only for the region but for US-PRC relations as well," he said.
Romberg, who recently returned from China, said that many in Beijing consider the referendum as "a substitute for a declaration of independence," or a "referendum on independence in disguise" with important political consequences, even though most people in Taiwan do not view the initiative as such.
He said officials and scholars in Beijing view the referendum issue as far more important than earlier actions by President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) with which they disagreed.
PRC officials said "This is different, this has a different quality to it and is part of a concerted effort to move toward independence," he said.
Washington also is concerned, Romberg said, because the referendum "could, in fact, affect peace and stability, which would affect vital American national interests."