Seeking to intimidate Taiwanese voters preparing for the island's first presidential election later this month, China today fired three unarmed missiles at targets in international waters off the coast of Taiwan.
The early morning missile tests launched from the mainland to areas near Taiwan's major ports of Kaohsiung and Keelung were first reported by the Taiwanese Defense Ministry. China, which earlier in the week had announced plans to conduct missile tests to designated sea targets for a week beginning today, did not immediately confirm the firings.
Military experts said the missiles were Chinese-made M-9s, modeled on the Russian Scud missiles used in the Persian Gulf War. The missiles have an estimated range of 375 miles, which easily covers the 137-mile Taiwan Strait and the entire island of 21 million people.
Taiwanese military officials said the missiles were unarmed but carried equipment to transmit flight details back to the mainland base.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry reported that two missiles "fell within the target area" west of Kaohsiung port and that another landed within the target area off Keelung, the island's principal northern port.
The target areas, which bracket the island, are both within 30 nautical miles of the Taiwanese coast, closer than any previous Chinese military exercise in the Taiwan Strait.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry declared the tests "provocative and reckless." U.S. officials fear that the proximity of the missile tests to the Taiwanese coast could result in an accident and escalate into a larger conflict.
On Thursday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) labeled the planned missile tests a "terrorist act."
"What the People's Republic of China is trying to do with its missile tests is an act of terror," Gingrich said in a speech before the Hudson Institute in Washington. "It is the willful imposition of threats out of all proportion to diplomatic relationships on a one-sided basis."
Speaking before a session of the National People's Congress in Beijing today, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said Taiwanese residents should not "panic" over the military exercises off their coast.
"What they should really worry about is that the 'independence-seekers,' with support from some international forces bent on splitting China, continue on their wrong path," Qian said. "That will be a real disaster."
In late editions this morning, both of Taiwan's major newspapers, the China Times and United Daily, devoted most of their front pages to the missile tests under headlines: "China Launches Missile Tests This Morning."
The primary intention of the Beijing government in conducting the missile tests appears to have been to influence voters in Taiwan's first direct presidential election, set for March 23.
In that election, incumbent President Lee Teng-hui, who has sought an independent seat for Taiwan in the United Nations and diplomatic recognition from other countries, is heavily favored to win.
Beijing political leaders hope Lee will get less than 50% of the vote. Failing that, they hope the tests will have a chilling effect on political moves by Taiwan toward independent status.
Despite a century in which Taiwan has been ruled by Japanese colonialists and then Nationalist Party forces from the mainland, the Chinese Communist leadership still considers Taiwan a province of the People's Republic of China.
But most experts also feel that China's domestic politics and looming succession struggle to replace 91-year-old senior leader Deng Xiaoping also play a role in the aggressive Chinese military stance.
The firing period is taking place simultaneously with a meeting of the congress in Beijing.
News that the missiles had been fired triggered a renewed surge of trading Taiwanese dollars for foreign currencies, mainly U.S. dollars, as a hedge against possible conflict with China.
Foreign banks said Thursday that some customers were seeking withdrawals of up to $500,000 in U.S. currency in cash, depleting their supplies.