The Clinton administration may no longer use the phrase "strategic ambiguity," but its posture in the Taiwan crisis reflects a concept familiar from earlier Taiwan crises. Paradoxically, this attempt to play it safe turns out to be the riskiest course -- especially as Beijing now contemplates military moves against Taiwan.

American policy has two parallel concerns -- first, to deter Beijing from a military attack on Taiwan, and second, to discourage Taipei from gratuitous unilateral moves that could generate a crisis, such as President Lee Teng-hui's recent assertions of Taiwanese statehood. But the administration's answer has been to split the difference -- to discourage Taipei by leaving some doubt as to the American commitment to defend it against an attack that it has "provoked."

This is the wrong answer. Our deterrence of a military attack by Beijing must be unambiguous and unconditional. If Beijing uses force, the geopolitical consequences for the United States in the Asia/Pacific region are the same no matter how the crisis originated. It will not matter who said what when. China's growing power casts a shadow over the region; its use of force on any pretext sends shock waves. Its military actions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in 1995-1996 had a big psychological impact in Japan and Southeast Asia, for example. The United States, as a great power upon which millions of people rely for their security, cannot act like a lawyer looking for loopholes in its commitments. And to "punish" Taiwan by hinting at acquiescence in its extinction is not an acceptable tactic for America's China policy.

Beijing should not be misled by the administration's current confusion into believing there will be no reaction to its use of force. An attack on Taiwan inevitably will engage the United States. Every president since Richard Nixon has declared the American interest in a "peaceful settlement" of the Taiwan problem -- which is a euphemistic way of saying that if China uses force, all bets are off; turning over Taiwan to forcible takeover by the mainland was never part of the bargain. Peaceful, voluntary reunification poses no problems for the United States; an attempted takeover by force raises a point of honor for a great power upon which millions rely -- all the more so while the People's Republic remains a Communist "people's dictatorship" and Taiwan is a democracy.

China should not miscalculate: There will be an American reaction, whose nature will depend on what move Beijing makes. The American response could be a major naval deployment (as in 1996); or swift veto-proof passage of the "Taiwan Security Enhancement Act" now pending in Congress (which would authorize a significant upgrading of U.S. military links with Taiwan); or further strengthening of U.S. defense ties with Japan, Australia, the Republic of Korea or members of ASEAN; or some combination of all these. And lurking behind the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act is the prospect of mandatory legislation drafted by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) that would deprive the president of his authority to block transfers of certain military equipment to Taiwan.

Taiwan, in turn, needs to understand that gratuitous, unilateral pronouncements that stir up a crisis are, among other things, a disservice to the great power it counts upon to bail it out. The latest declarations seem not to be serious policy, but short-sighted domestic politics. Even if the United States lives up to its commitments, the ultimate consequences are unpredictable. Moves of this kind, made without coordination with us, do not improve Taiwan's position in the world and complicate relations with any administration.

In this regard, however, there is another anomaly in the Clinton policy -- the lack of an authoritative political dialogue on either diplomacy or security with Taipei. If our concern is to moderate Taipei's behavior, how can this be done without authoritative high-level communication? The text of the "Taiwan Security Enhancement Act" is a catalogue of the kinds of contacts now lacking in the military field -- including secure, direct communication between military commands and exchanges of personnel to share perceptions on such topics as threat analysis, doctrine and planning. The kind of diplomatic contact that would make political understandings possible is at least equally important.

Without any prejudice to America's understandings with China under the 1972, 1979 and 1982 U.S.-China communiques, the more crisis-prone environment that now exists with respect to Taiwan suggests that better communication all around would be a common interest of Washington, Taipei and Beijing.

The writer, a former White House and State Department official, is director of national security programs at the Nixon Center and a senior editor of National Review.