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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 06:40 GMT
China drill before Taiwan poll
China's eastern coast
Taiwan has accused Beijing of intimidation, after China opted to stage rare naval drills with France in the run-up to Taiwan's elections.

The exercises with a visiting French fleet are being held on Tuesday.

The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, said they would be China's biggest ever joint military exercises with a foreign power.

But the agency made no link between the exercises off the port of Qingdao and the elections this Saturday.

China has a history of flexing its military muscles just before Taiwan goes to the polls.

It has also been especially critical of Taiwan's first-ever referendum, also being held on Saturday, which Beijing views as a provocative step towards independence.

"If this week's planned exercises are as large as those China held in 1996 they will clearly amount to an attempt to intimidate Taiwan's voters," Joseph Wu, deputy secretary general to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, told BBC News Online.

Qingdao is about 1,250 km (780 miles) from Taiwan's northernmost point.

The timing is very insensitive - it could not be worse
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, French China specialist

"This will be China's most comprehensive naval exercise with any foreign navy," said Xinhua, quoting Ju Xinchun, captain of the Chinese guided missile destroyer, Harbin.

China held its first ever joint naval exercises last year, when it conducted separate drills with both Pakistan and India.

This will be its first exercise on the high seas with a major Western power, said Xinhua.

The French government confirmed the exercises but denied there was any significance in their scale or timing.

"They are part of the regional cooperation between the two navies, which was expanded after last year's visit to France by Chinese President Hu Jintao," said a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry in Paris.

Warships

French warships - including the French anti-submarine warfare destroyer Latouche-Treville and light frigate Commandant Birotplan - will carry out joint search-and-rescue exercises and other drills with the North China Sea Fleet of the People's Liberation Army.

Naval exercises
Indian ships took part in rare exercises with China last year

Chinese missile tests immediately before Taiwan's first direct presidential elections eight years ago prompted the US to send two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the area, in its biggest military deployment in the region since the Vietnam War.

The US will be annoyed with both sides taking part in this week's exercises, say analysts.

"The timing is very insensitive - it could not be worse," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a senior China specialist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

"This is going to create additional tensions - both between Taiwan and China and between the United States and France," he told BBC News Online.

Taiwan suspended high-level government contacts with France earlier this year after French President Jacques Chirac sided with China in opposing President Chen's plan to hold a referendum on missile defence.

France has also drawn criticism from both Washington and Taipei by spearheading moves to lift a European Union ban on arms sales to China, imposed in the wake of the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.


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