With China signaling that its war games may spread, Taiwan’s president flew to islands near the maneuvers Thursday and accused Chinese leaders of being “scared to death” of Taiwanese democracy.
Chinese warplanes held a third day of mock attacks southwest of Taiwan, and also conducted “preliminary exercises” near Fuzhou, a Chinese coastal city 100 miles west of Taiwan’s northern tip, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry reported.
Taiwan had warned that China may be planning even bigger exercises before the island’s presidential election March 23 in an attempt to discourage Taiwan from declaring independence.
President Lee Teng-hui, who is running for another term, was smiling and looked relaxed as he addressed a crowd in the Pescadores archipelago, 45 miles from where Chinese ships and planes were staging mock attacks.
Wearing a tan windbreaker and sneakers, the 73-year-old Lee appealed for unity and reminded the islanders of his efforts to democratize Taiwan politics.
“These are the things the Chinese Communists dare not do: political liberalization, freedom and democracy,” he said. “They see freedom and democracy and they are scared to death.”
The Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war on the mainland to the Communists. China accuses Lee of now discarding the doctrine of reunification Beijing and Taipei had shared.
Meanwhile, an article in a state-run Chinese newspaper on Thursday suggested an effort to rally the citizenry behind the cause of quashing pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan.
“The reunification of the country is of vital importance to the Chinese people. To accomplish it, any cost might have to be justified,” said the article in China Daily.
Despite the confrontational words from Beijing, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said it was unlikely the maneuvers would escalate into war.
“I believe the Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Straits probably will not lead to a military conflict,” Perry said at a press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, which he was visiting. “I believe they are trying to intimidate the Taiwanese before the elections.”
The war games started Tuesday, and have pushed tensions between the two sides to their worst level since the late 1950s, when Taiwan traded artillery barrages with China from islands near the mainland coast.
Schoolchildren at some Taiwanese schools held annual air raid drills Thursday, timed to coincide with China’s eight days of missile tests near Taiwan.
China test-fired three missiles Friday and a fourth on Wednesday. There were no reports of missiles fired Thursday, a day before the launches were due to end.
At the Nanmen School in central Taipei, children were led to a ground-floor corridor and shown how to crouch and cover their faces. Schools that have bomb shelters are using them in drills.
Despite reassurances the government can repel any Chinese attack, many Taiwanese have been hoarding food and buying U.S. dollars to move their money out of the country.