President Clinton has ordered a second Navy aircraft carrier group to join one already in the waters near Taiwan as tensions mount between China and Taiwan, sources said.
The dispatch of the second carrier group comes as Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher warned China Sunday that the military exercises it is holding in the Taiwan Strait are “unnecessarily risky” and “unnecessarily reckless” and that belligerent actions against Taiwan would have “grave consequences.”
Pentagon officials said Sunday that the aircraft carrier USS Independence and three of its battleships were ordered Saturday to move to within about 100 miles of the Taiwan Strait.
Administration officials said the Pentagon will announce today that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and five or six accompanying ships will arrive from the Persian Gulf a few days before Taiwan’s March 23 presidential election.
China has sought to influence Taiwan’s presidential election and discourage the pro-democracy movement on the island by staging missile tests off Taiwan’s coast and announcing plans for live ammunition tests in the straits that divide Taiwan from the mainland.
China’s actions have escalated military tensions between the two governments to a level not seen in more than a decade.
Both Beijing and Taipei claim to be the sole legitimate government of the Chinese, but their enmity has been tempered in recent years by increased trade and tourism across the Taiwan Strait.
National security adviser Anthony Lake, in an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley,” said that “if there are accidents” in the military exercises, China “will be held accountable. And we have also said that if they attack Taiwan, there will be grave consequences.”
Several U.S. officials said that the administration has no reason to doubt Beijing’s public assurances that it does not intend to use the military exercises as a cover for invading Taiwan, a self-governing island that China considers to be a province of China.
“We have no evidence” to suggest the exercises will lead to conflict, one official said, “but we want to be prudent.”
Another official described the decision to move the carrier task forces as an effort to deter any Chinese adventurism. The U.S. ships and planes will “monitor the activities” of Chinese forces and “ensure that the stated purpose (of the military exercise) remains the actual purpose.”
U.S. officials have no plans at present to sail the U.S. vessels through the Taiwan Strait, seeing no need to conduct such a maneuver at this time, several officials said.
The Nimitz and four escort vessels sailed through the strait in December in a maneuver that U.S. officials described as sending a message to Beijing to refrain from military action against Taiwan.
The movement of U.S. naval forces was announced after U.S. officials held a lengthy meeting on Friday with a top Chinese official, Liu Huaqui, who reiterated Beijing’s claim that China’s relationship with Taiwan was an internal matter, according to an administration official familiar with the talks.
Liu saved his harshest criticism for the Taiwanese government - which he said had provoked the current dispute. But he also accused Washington of interfering wrongfully. “He was basically trying to convince us to stand aside while they intimidate Taiwan, and that’s not happening,” a senior official said.
In addition to reiterating U.S. complaints that the Chinese missile firings and military exercises are reckless, Lake and other U.S. officials tried to convince Liu that Beijing’s campaign of intimidation would backfire by shoring up support in Taiwan for the country’s pro-democracy candidate Lee Teng-Hui in the first democratic elections in the island’s history.
Beijing has complained that Lee is pursuing a separatist policy contrary to past pledges of eventual reunification of Taiwan and its 21 million inhabitants and China.
Lake said in an interview that the dispatch of the warships represented “prudent steps. Anytime there is a crisis in an area where our interests are … we move our ships in.”
One official described the convoy as the “largest U.S. force in the region in the recent past.”
Once assembled, the Navy force will include 110 to 130 carrier-based strike aircraft, and ships with well over 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles on board. In addition, the battle groups will be accompanied by submarines that bring special, hard-to-detect weaponry and surveillance capabilities.