ONCE AGAIN China is threatening the small offshore island of Taiwan -- not with missiles this time, at least not yet, but with bellicose words. "Don't underestimate the courage and force of the Chinese people to oppose separatism and Taiwan independence," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Set aside that as employees of an unelected Communist government the latest threat-mongers are ill qualified to speak on behalf of the Chinese people. What has irked the government is Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's comment that talks between Taiwan and China should be pursued on the basis of "state-to-state" relations. In other words, Taiwan is one country, China another; no use pretending otherwise.

As a matter of fact, there can be no disputing Mr. Lee's observation. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy of 21 million people, China a Communist dictatorship of 1.2 billion. They have separate governments, currencies, armed forces, foreign policies, laws, television networks, customs, airlines -- they are, in other words, separate countries.

But pretense remains the basis of China's policy, and America's, too. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be reeled in eventually -- by diplomacy if possible, by force if necessary. The United States opposes the use of force but supports -- especially under President Clinton -- a one-China policy. In 1972, when the United States made its first overtures to Beijing, it "acknowledged" that both Taipei and Beijing believed in one China (both at the time claimed to be the real China). The United States at the time said merely that it did not challenge that view.

Taiwan is no longer, as it was then, ruled by a dictatorship, and the Soviet Union -- the principal strategic motivation for the United States to pursue close ties with China -- no longer exists. But Mr. Clinton, while professing not to change U.S. policy, has in fact aligned it closer to Beijing's views, going well beyond "acknowledgment" to specifically rule out independence for Taiwan.

There are reasons for caution, for avoiding any lurches of policy, which most Taiwan leaders well understand. No one, and Taiwan least of all, will gain from a crisis that could harm Taiwan's economy and at worst lead to military conflict. But instead of leading China's leaders to believe that the United States will help them force Taiwan into the fold, Mr. Clinton should help those leaders understand that the United States must support the Taiwanese people's right to determine their own future. He might also point out that if China's leaders would accord their own people that right, the chances of rapprochement between Taiwan and China would increase.