China war games may be off
TAIPEI (Reuters) - China has withdrawn 3,000 soldiers from a military exercise on an island facing Taiwan, prompting speculation that Beijing may have cancelled its annual war games, the Taiwan defence ministry says.
A China-backed Hong Kong newspaper said in mid-July that China had started week-long drills simulating an invasion of Taiwan on the southeastern Chinese island of Dongshan, but Taiwan says large-scale exercises never took place.
"After the ground troops arrived, they did some basic training exercises such as swimming in combat gear, loading and off-loading equipment," said Defence ministry spokesman Huang Shuey-sheng by telephone on Monday.
"The ground troops arrived on Dongshan island and did some training before the middle of this month, but as of today we found that the troops have gradually been moved away."
Dongshan, 280 km (170 miles) from the Taiwan-held Pescadore islands, also known as Penghu, had been the site of eight drills since 1996 when China menaced the self-ruled island in the run-up to its first-ever presidential elections.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has threatened to attack if the self-governing island declares formal independence.
Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao said on July 16 that land, sea and air exercises had started on Dongshan, with 18,000 troops taking part in a drill that would demonstrate Chinese air superiority over the Taiwan Strait for the first time.
"Our understanding is that did not happen," said Huang, when asked if joint-force exercises had taken place in Dongshan.
"The likelihood (of a major drill on Dongshan) is quite low but we will continue to watch the situation."
Tension between Beijing and Taipei has been running high since independence-leaning Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian won a second four-year term in March, exacerbated by reports that both sides were holding their annual war games this summer.
A week after the Ta Kung Pao report, China's official Xinhua news agency said about 3,000 Chinese officers, men, militia and paramilitary police had staged a two-day weekend exercise off the southeastern coast of Fujian.
Those exercises involved militia boats firing ground-to-air guided missiles, providing first aid and ship repair services, said the online report at www.xinhuanet.com.
A spokesman for China's military said on Monday that he knew nothing about an exercise on Dongshan.
"We have not received a notice from the Ministry of National Defence. We don't know if there is such an exercise or if the exercise has been cancelled," the spokesman said.
Taiwan's mass-circulation China Times newspaper quoted defence sources as saying the cancellation was "very unusual" and speculated whether it might be due to a political struggle in China, U.S. pressure on China not to increase tension before the U.S. presidential elections or Beijing's desire not to raise tensions with Taipei.
Taiwan has rescheduled its major Han Kuang, or Chinese Glory, joint-force drills to September 9 because of a typhoon last week.
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