IN JUST THE past few days, China has illegally seized a Taiwanese ship, sent jet fighters provocatively across the Taiwan Strait, repeatedly hurled threats at Taiwan and its elected president and test-fired a new ballistic missile built in part with stolen U.S. technology. It also has cracked down on a peaceful spiritual sect, rounding up hundreds of members for some old-fashioned Communist "re-education," and has (just on Monday) sentenced two pro-democracy activists to terms of eight and nine years in prison on charges of "subverting state power."

The Clinton administration response to all this has been, for the most part, to chide Taiwan and make soothing noises toward China. In part, this may reflect the administration's dismay that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui reformulated his country's policy toward China without winning Washington's advance approval. The administration's unhappiness is understandable -- but so, unfortunately, is Mr. Lee's behavior. It was President Clinton, after all, who chose China as the venue for endorsing a new and, from Taiwan's perspective, disadvantageous U.S. policy toward Taiwan. That, along with Mr. Clinton's Beijing-centered policy overall, hasn't fostered trusting relations between the United States and Taiwan.

But the administration isn't just responding out of pique; it believes an accommodating attitude toward Beijing is the best way to maintain peace in a dangerous part of the world. Mr. Clinton wants to develop a "strategic constructive partnership" with China's regime, and to do so he treats friendly democracies in the region -- Taiwan, South Korea, even Japan -- as if they were of secondary importance. That's why Mr. Clinton accepts China's fiction that Taiwan is not a separate state. That's why he accepts as legitimate China's parallel views of Taiwan and Hong Kong, even though Hong Kong -- now incorporated into China -- was a colony and never a free entity. The Chinese "have made clear a sensitivity to the different system that exists on Taiwan, and a willingness to find ways to accommodate it, as they did in working with Hong Kong, and perhaps, even going beyond that," Mr. Clinton said recently. But the people of Hong Kong were given no say before being turned over by Britain to the mercies of China's dictators. Such an outcome would be acceptable for Taiwan only with the explicit consent of the Taiwanese people -- and Mr. Clinton should say so.

Instead, the United States maintains a policy of "strategic ambiguity," warning China against the use of force without explicitly promising to defend Taiwan against Chinese attack. This murkiness is designed to discourage Taiwan from recklessly declaring independence. The danger, though, is that China, rather than Taiwan, will misjudge U.S. steadfastness. In the long run, there will be more chance of deterring war, securing peace and even fostering good relations with China if the United States opts for clarity, not ambiguity, in showing support for its true friends in the region.