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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

March 7, 2005

While most eyes are fixed on the Mideast, two long-simmering crises over Taiwan and Nepal are heating up again.

This week, a major Chinese Communist Party congress is slated to declare that any further moves by Taiwan to assert independence will be considered `treason’ and an act of war.

China has long fulminated against Taiwan, which it considers a `renegade province.’ But this latest threat reflects a sharp rise in nationalist feeling over Taiwan among Chinese and the strongest yet statement by the Communist Party that independence-minded Taiwanese are committing `treason.’

More important, for the first time, China’s growing military power gives it the capability to seriously threaten Taiwan and to possibly neutralize the naval power of Taiwan’s protector, the United States.

China is deploying a fleet of new landing craft for a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. Its surface and submarine forces have been significantly strengthened. China’s air force is flying potent Russian Sukhoi-27 attack aircraft with air refueling capability, and introducing new, F8 fighters using advanced US technology obtained from Israel.

Far more worrisome for the US, whose attack carriers are the principal deterrent to any Chinese invasion of Taiwan, China now has a large number of deadly Russian-supplied supersonic `Sunburn’ SS-N-22 anti-ship missiles that can be fired from ships, submarines and aircraft. A single hit by one of these powerful missiles could cripple a US carrier. Some naval experts believe that these and similar heavy, high-speed missiles have made heavy attack carriers obsolescent.

China has over 600 missiles ballistic pointed at Taiwan. Fired in barrages, these missiles are designed to shatter Taiwan’s ports, oil complexes, airfields, naval bases and communications nodes.

In response, Taiwan is rushing to deploy its own anti-missile missiles, anti-ship missiles, and long-ranged cruise missiles designed to attack Chinese invasion ports and air or missile bases opposite Taiwan.

China’s powerful military appears to have run out of patience with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-ban’s on-again, off-again attempts to assert further independence. Cautious Communist Party elders are trying to restrain nationalist tensions and pursue negotiations, but the party is under mounting pressure to take military action. The split in the Chinese Communist Party between advocates of force and those favoring continued negotiations accounts in good part for Beijing’s mixture of threats and smiles when dealing with Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the European Union seems close to ending an arms embargo of China imposed after the Tiananmen Square uprising. China urgently wants to buy $15 billion of modern electronics, missiles, warplanes and armor from the EU. Huge business is at stake.

The Bush Administration and Congress are up in arms at this prospect and threaten to curtail military technology transfers to the EU, and even impose trade sanctions. This issue is further aggravating badly damaged US-EU relations just when the White House has been trying to repair them, and threatens to become a major irritant in the fraying trans-Atlantic alliance.

As tensions over Taiwan mount, another nasty crisis is occurring in Nepal. The bloody Maoist insurgency there has been raging for a decade, killing over 11,000 people. Like Kashmir, it has been largely ignored by the western world.

Much of rural Nepal is in the hands of the insurgents, who draw inspiration from the most extreme theories of Mao and Cambodia’s Pol Pot. Last week, 68 rebels and soldiers were killed in the latest round of clashes.

Nepal’s ruler, King Gyanendra, staged a palace coup in February, ousted the nation’s somewhat democratic government, and assumed absolute power. Gyanendra came to the throne after the bizarre murder of the previous king and queen by their son, a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Nepal is in political and economic chaos. The Maoist insurgents are said to control up to two-thirds of Nepal’s rural areas.

These events have deeply alarmed Nepal’s two powerful neighbors, India and China. India has long considered Hindu Nepal a semi- protectorate. Some Nepalese fear that in time India may simply absorb their nation has it did Sikkim, Bhutan and Goa,

Nepal’s Maoist insurgents are forging links to Maoist Naxalite rebels in northern India. The two movements are attacking landowners and government officials. India, Britain, the US, and, now, Pakistan, are getting drawn into the fray in Nepal by supplying its embattled regime with arms, finance, advisors and helicopters.

China is increasingly troubled by India’s intervention in Nepal, the latest dangerous irritant on their long, poorly demarcated, contested Himalayan border over which they fought a sharp war in 1962. Chinese military roads have been driven up to the Nepali border and army units reinforced. China’s People Liberation Army is being deployed to intervene forcefully in Nepal should the Indian Army move to occupy the Himalayan kingdom.

If Nepal dissolves further into chaos, the risk of an Indian-Chinese clash there becomes ever more possible in spite of recent attempts by Delhi and Beijing to better uneasy relations. Growing guerilla war in India’s extreme eastern hill states, and surging Indian-Chinese rivalry over Burma, are further heightening tensions. A major Indian-Chinese clash could quickly draw Pakistan into the conflict.

Western powers have no business getting involved in Nepal, and should stay out. So should India and Pakistan. But intensive western diplomatic efforts are urgently needed to dampen down the China-Taiwan confrontation and deal with North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling.

Another concern: there’s even an outside chance China might decide to gamble on a quick war to occupy Taiwan while severely over-stretched US military forces are bogged down in Iraq. In this event. North Korea might dare a last gamble to `liberate’ South Korea.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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