A Crack In Taiwan's Armor

TaiwanÂ's efforts to appear strong in the face of continued Chinese threats ran into a hitch Wednesday, when an F-16 fighter jet – the pride of the islandÂ's air force – crashed on a runway because its landing gear failed to function.

Pilot Lin Keng-sheng parachuted to safety and was hospitalized with bone fractures, local radio reported. But the jet crash was Taiwan's third loss of an F-16 in 17 months and it came at a particularly sensitive time for Taipei, which is locked in an increasingly militant war of words with mainland China.

Volleys of rhetoric have been fired by both sides since Chinese anger was stoked by a July 9 declaration that TaipeiÂ's Â"one-ChinaÂ" policy – which had governed relations with Beijing for years – was being shelved in favor of state-to-state ties.

After President Lee Teng-hui announced the policy shift, China launched a campaign of threats to use force against the island, but Taiwan has largely brushed them off with declarations hinting at its own military prowess.

China's military newspaper Liberation Army Daily said in a blistering front-page commentary Wednesday that the military is ready Â"at any timeÂ" to crush any effort to split the country.

Â"Better lose a thousand soldiers than lose an inch of soil,Â" the newspaper said in its latest harrangue against Lee. The newspaper also said units in China's northwest successfully conducted joint exercises this month.

China's renewed threats to attack Taiwan follow earlier reports that it has been boosting the numbers of M-9 and M-11 ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan.

Responding to the missile threat – considered ChinaÂ's most dangerous weapon – Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui on Wednesday pushed for an island-wide antimissile defense network.

An antimissile defense system Â"not only responds to current needs, but even more, fulfills the nation's long-term development interests,Â" Lee was quoted as telling a meeting of the ruling Nationalist Party's top decision-making body.

Lee's comment, relayed to reporters by Nationalist spokesman Huang Hwei-chen, was among his strongest public endorsements of an antimissile system. The proposed project is the most expensive and sensitive defense program being pursued by Taiwan and mostly remains shrouded in secrecy.

China claims Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be reunified with the mainland - by force if necessary. The two sides have been politically divided since a 1949 civil war.

Taiwan, which possesses Patriots and wants to buy Aegis destroyers from the United States, spends $7.84 billion, or about 20 percent of the national budget, on its military.

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