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CHINA MISSILE TESTS TO SHUT PART OF STRAIT.

Byline: Patrick E. Tyler The New York Times

Further stepping up its military pressure on Taiwan, China said Saturday night that it would close a huge swath of the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday to conduct "live fire" exercises with naval ships and warplanes as a series of missile tests neared completion.

It will be the first time China has tried to close such a large portion of the international waterway between Taiwan and the mainland.

The announcement raised immediate questions of whether Beijing was challenging the right of passage by U.S. naval vessels through the sensitive area.

A U.S. Navy battle group led by the aircraft carrier Nimitz traversed the Taiwan Strait on Dec. 19, and Clinton administration officials have hinted in recent days that they may be considering additional transits by U.S. warships through the strait.

(The White House and Pentagon, which have repeatedly condemned Chinese missile tests close to Taiwan, had no immediate comment. A Clinton administration official said the new exercises had been expected and would probably not hinder shipping. "According to the shipping companies, it's only a minor inconvenience," the official said. "They just go around it.")

On Friday, China began ballistic missile tests within a few dozen miles of two of Taiwan's major ports, Keelung and Kaohsiung. Three Chinese M-9 missiles have been fired into the target zones so far without incident.

The announcement of new military maneuvers was issued by the official New China News Agency. "From March 12 to 20, 1996, the Chinese People's Liberation Army will conduct naval and air force exercises," it said.

"For the sake of safety, the Chinese government requests the governments of relevant countries" to notify "ships and aircraft of their countries not to enter the said sea area and airspace during this period."

In Taiwan on Saturday, President Lee Teng-hui said the expanding war games in the Taiwan Strait would not interfere with the country's first direct presidential election, on March 23.

"I want to emphasize that force and threats will not obstruct the pursuit of democracy, freedom and dignity," he said in a televised address.

China has been seeking to weaken Lee's hold on power because it suspects that his drive for greater international recognition for Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province, is a strategy to undermine the official "one China" policy of his Nationalist Party.

"In my recollection, China has never gone this far toward closing the strait," said James Lilley, a former ambassador to China and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "It is a challenge, because they are beginning to take us on in international waters, and that is pretty dangerous."

CAPTION(S):

MAP

Map "Live fire" test area
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 10, 1996
Words:455
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