The Chinese and French Navies are holding a five-day long joint naval exercise off the coast of Qingdao, a port city in east China's Shandong province (about 1,250 kilometers from Taiwan's northernmost point). This cruise is the twelfth visit made by French warships to China and their fourth to Qingdao. Involving around 700 sailors (322 of them French), this is to date the largest joint drill held by the Chinese and any foreign navy.
The corvette-class 'Commandant Birot' and anti-submarine-warfare destroyer 'Latouche-Treville' arrived on March 12, joining the Chinese 'Harbin' destroyer, a supply vessel 'Hongze Lake' and a ship with a helicopter landing pad. The two groups completed flag signal exchanges and fleet formation changes. The March 16 exercises lasted eight hours, including refueling exercises at sea and search-and-rescue exercises, as well as landing helicopters on the other's vessels.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily also reported that Chinese heavy military equipment had been moved into the south-western province of Fujian (facing Taiwan) while across the channel, news reports said that mobile antiaircraft missile systems had been quietly deployed in Taipei as police stepped up security.
So why is the timing of this exercise important? And why are the French involved?
This show of military strength just four days before Taiwan holds a presidential election signaled China's desire to isolate the self-governing island before the vote and its first-ever referendum, which Beijing views as a provocative step towards independence. However, China's official Xinhua news agency made no link between the exercises and the election.
China adopted a more subtle approach to avoid driving Taiwan voters into the camp of the pro-independence Chen. In 1996, China threatened Taiwan with missile tests and war games in the run-up to the island's first direct presidential elections, an attempt to dissuade voters from re-electing President Lee Teng-hui. This backfired and Lee won by a landslide.
France simply has more to gain by appearing to side with China. France, once a major supplier of weapons to Taiwan, has made no major deals with them for about 10 years. However, the diplomats can win French businesses a firm footing in a larger and rapidly growing market.
In January, President Chirac sided with China by opposing Taiwanese President Shui-bian's plan to hold a referendum on missile defense concurrent with the presidential elections. Taiwan responded by suspending high-level government exchanges with France. - Adam Geibel