A top Taiwanese defense official and an expert on the Chinese military both said yesterday Beijing is ready, willing and able to attack the island soon.

The Peoples Liberation Army has the capability to blockade Taiwan using missile-strike zones, George Washington University professor David Shambaugh told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing.

The world should not be surprised if the mainland makes the move against Taiwan in 2006, he added.

“The PLA is increasingly able and willing to use a whole range of means to threaten Taiwan – electronic, naval, air, missiles, special operations,” said Shambaugh. “[The PLA] has been preparing since the 1996 missile crisis to implement a spectrum of capabilities.

He added: “[Taiwanese President] Chen Shui-bian set the timeline – in 2006 he will amend the constitution, and there is no belief whatsoever in Beijing that it will just be a partial amendment. His inauguration speech was a red rag to a bull, and the PLA is preparing diplomatically and militarily.”

Shambaugh refused to speculate on possible scenarios for a PLA attack. Nor would he comment on whether the U.S. would intervene. But he did say he doubted the ability of Taiwan’s military to withstand Chinese attack.

Taiwan spent $6.4 billion on weapons procurement in 2000 and this year is looking at additional weapons purchases amounting to $18 billion – spending that would come on top of the island’s annual defense budget of nearly $10 billion. The U.S. military has sent hundreds of software experts to Taiwan to help its forces upgrade their military preparedness, especially in the use of Patriot anti-missile systems.

“Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities have been wanting in many areas,” Shambaugh said. “If you’re focused on hardware, you’re missing the big picture. There still is a major question on how well Taiwan is absorbing the weapons that are being sold to them and the answer is not that well.”

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Vice Defense Minister Tsai Ming-hsien said the Chinese communist forces might attack the island in the coming years and called for the passage of a special budget seeking to boost the island’s military might.

“The Chinese Communists are likely to conduct small-scale or partial attacks in 2006 or 2008,” Tsai said in Parliament.

Asked why he thought the Chinese military would attack during that period, Tsai said because by “that time they may have acquired air and naval superiority (over Taiwan)” following Beijing’s persistent arms build-up.

Though some military analysts believe Taiwan still has the ability to defend itself against a Chinese attack, Shambaugh said the PLA now has the edge.

“Some say the PLA will tip the balance by 2008, but I’ll say they’ve already tipped the balance,” he said. “The PLA is already superior to the forces in Taiwan.”

The PLA navy has 65 surface warships and 35 submarines – a small fleet when compared to the blue-water navies of the United States or Russia.

“How hard is it to blockade Taiwan?” he asked. “You’re only talking about two ports and one naval base. The PLA has invented a new form of blockade with its missile-strike zones. When the PLA designates an area off Taiwan a missile-strike zone, no ship will dare cross the zone.”

Tsai, meanwhile, urged approval of a special outlay for Taiwan’s purchase of eight submarines, a modified version of the Patriot anti-missile systems PAC-III and a fleet of anti-submarine aircraft over a 15-year period commencing in 2005.

China has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan should the island declare formal independence.

Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party has pledged to amend the constitution before retiring in 2008 to reflect his group’s separatist stance.

The DPP government insists the current constitution, enacted by the former Kuomintang government, must be dramatically changed to meet Taiwan’s needs, but Beijing sees the attempt as a step towards formal independence.

The U.S. Defense Department warned in a report last month that China was developing “credible military options” to prevent Taiwan from achieving independence, including tools to discourage the United States from coming to the island’s aid in a conflict with the mainland.

Separately, the defense ministry issued a statement denying a U.S. report suggesting Taiwan could repel a Chinese attack by bombing China’s Three Gorges Dam.

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China expands naval power

China steps up Taiwan preparations

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