Friday, November 9, 2007

Midnight maneuvers

Military muscle-flexing gets mixed reaction in Taipei

Jonathan Adams
Newsweek "Why It Matters" blog, October 3, 2007

At one in the morning Wednesday, downtown Taipei looked eerily like it was under military occupation. The narrow, dimly-lit side streets near the Presidential Office bristled with combat equipment -- mobile missile batteries in front of a TGI Friday's; tanks parked next to a 7-11; amphibious vehicles taking the place of the city's ubiquitous scooters.

That was all part of rehearsals for Taiwan's Oct. 10 National Day. Every year rifle-twirling troops march in formation at the celebration. But this year, they'll be joined by more military hardware than in the last 15 years, says the defense ministry. Some of Taiwan's most advanced equipment will be on display -- including, it's rumored, a new surface-to-surface missile for striking targets insideChina.

Why the show of force? This year's parade comes amid renewed cross-strait tensions. The island's President Chen Shui-bian is pushing a controversial referendum on joining the UN under the name "Taiwan," to be held alongside elections next March. That's part of an agenda to boost Taiwanese pride and assert the island's sovereignty before he steps down next May.

China's on edge, and it's responded with its own tough talk and posturing. (Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.) On Sept. 15 -- the same day as a huge rally in Taiwan supporting the UN bid -- the city of Shanghai held its biggest airraid drill in decades. It held a smaller drill when Chen was inaugurated in May 2000.

Back in Taipei, some passersby gaped openly at what looked a scene out of a war movie. "I don't feel good about it -- I don't think all these military vehicles and soldiers should be on the streets," said one store clerk. "It's just like in an authoritarian country."

Others were more cynical. Chen is especially unpopular in the capital Taipei, where many view his administration as thoroughly corrupt after a string of scandals involving his aides and relatives. "It's just a show," said Chen Kuang-shing, as US-made Patriot missile batteries rumbled by. "He screwed up Taiwan's democracy, so he wants to show his authority."

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