In the latest broadside in the confrontation between Taiwan and China, Chinese President Jiang Zemin has told President Clinton that China would not rule out using force to crush independence activism in Taiwan.

Jiang made his remarks in a phone conversation with Clinton Sunday night, according to the official New China News Agency, and sources in Washington said that American diplomats will try to ease tensions between the rival governments in discussions with both sides.

While telling Clinton that the Beijing government is committed to peaceful reunification with Taiwan, Jiang said China "will never sit idle if some people engage in Taiwan independence and foreign forces interfere in China's reunification cause," the news agency reported.

Jiang also warned Clinton that "anti-China forces" in the United States should not be allowed to succeed in supporting any bid by Taiwan to declare formal independence from China, the agency reported. The White House said Clinton reiterated that the United States has not altered its commitment to a "one China" policy--meaning that it recognizes Beijing as the sole legitimate Chinese government.

Tensions between China and Taiwan have reached their highest point in three years following the sudden announcement last weekend by Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, that the self-ruled island wants to establish "special state-to-state relations" with China rather than conforming to Beijing's view of Taiwan as a wayward Chinese province. Officials in Taiwan later expanded on Lee's announcement, saying they want to abandon the "one China" policy, which has been the bedrock of Taipei-Beijing relations since dialogue between the two began in the late 1980s.

Taiwan and China have been estranged since 1949, when the onetime ruling Chinese Nationalist Party and its supporters lost a civil war to Communist forces and fled to the island. Since then, Taiwan has become a prosperous democracy and has said it will reunite only with a democratic China. A Taiwanese opinion poll published today found that 73.3 percent of those surveyed supported Lee's new stance.

Prior to Jiang's call to Clinton, China's military, which is known to favor a hard line toward Taiwan, had been allowed to frame China's response to the latest crisis--something that concerned Western diplomats. In a front-page article Sunday in the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po, a Communist-owned newspaper, an unnamed officer in China's army was quoted as saying that force "remains an option when it comes to Taiwan" and that "We have ample power; this is indisputable."

His remarks followed reports in the same newspaper Saturday that China had held "wartime mobilization drills" the day before involving more than 100 civilian vessels in Fujian province, opposite Taiwan. Significantly, that report said Maj. Gen. Su Jing, deputy chief of staff of the Nanjing Military Region, which would be responsible for any large-scale military exercises, watched the 12-hour operation. Sailors gathering for the drills sang: "We will liberate Taiwan," the report said.

The Chinese military also took the lead during a period of similar tensions in March 1996, after Lee became the first president of Taiwan to visit the United States since Washington switched its recognition of the Chinese government from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

Three years ago, as Taiwan prepared for its first direct presidential elections, China launched a massive military exercise just opposite the island and fired tactical missiles nearby. The United States responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, bringing Washington and Beijing perilously close to open conflict.

In Sunday's Wen Wei Po article, the unidentified officer contends that those 1996 drills were a success--because they "beat back the influence of Taiwan independence activism and contained Lee's separatist plot." This analysis, which also has been made recently in several publications linked to China's military, is worrisome to Western military and diplomatic officials who fear that China's military, backed by hard-liners in the Communist Party, will be encouraged to undertake similarly provocative action now.

Partly because of those fears, U.S. officials have said that unlike the 1996 crisis when American diplomacy got off to a slow start, this time the Clinton administration is engaged. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan are set to meet this week in Singapore, while other senior U.S. diplomats are expected to visit Beijing soon.