In 1996, colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui were in Fujian province for military exercises aimed at threatening the island of Taiwan. As Chinese M9 intermediate-range missiles splashed into waters off two main southern Taiwanese ports, the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.

Like most Chinese officers, the colonels were furious at the U.S. move, seeing it as another sign of American interference in China's internal affairs. But to Qiao and Wang, the first crisis in the Taiwan Strait was also a lesson.

"We realized that if China's military was to face off against the United States, we would not be sufficient," said Wang, an air force colonel in the Guangzhou military district's political department. "So we realized that China needs a new strategy to right the balance of power."

Their response was to write a book called "Unrestricted War," which has become one of the hottest of a new series of military publications that haunt China's strategic planners, as well as many average citizens, with these questions:

How does a relatively weak country like China stand up to a powerful nation like the United States? How should China's military modernization program be modified to ensure that China gets the biggest bang for the yuan? And how can China, which dreams of reuniting with Taiwan, ensure that the United States, which is legally bound to protect the island, thinks twice about getting militarily involved in any showdown across the Taiwan Strait?

Among their sometimes creative and sometimes shocking proposals for dealing with a powerful adversary are terrorism, drug trafficking, environmental degradation and computer virus propagation. The authors include a flow chart of 24 different types of war and argue that the more complicated the combination -- for example, terrorism plus a media war plus a financial war -- the better the results. From that perspective, "Unrestricted War" marries the Chinese classic, "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, with modern military technology and economic globalization.

"Unrestricted War is a war that surpasses all boundaries and restrictions," they write at one point. "It takes nonmilitary forms and military forms and creates a war on many fronts. It is the war of the future."

The book is an important expression of China's feelings of powerlessness when confronted by U.S. might. By discussing terrorism and other controversial methods of waging war, the pair illustrates China's deep discomfort with a global system in which the United States seems to dictate all the rules -- even the rules of war.

"We are a weak country," Wang said, "so do we need to fight according to your rules? No."

"War has rules, but those rules are set by the West," continued the 45-year-old son of a military officer. "But if you use those rules, then weak countries have no chance. But if you use nontraditional means to fight, like those employed by financiers to bring down financial systems, then you have a chance."

It is extremely rare for Chinese military officers to speak with a Western reporter. The pair agreed to do that after they were encountered accidentally during a visit to a Beijing office complex. One of their reasons for agreeing seemed to be an attempt to counter reports in the Chinese press that they were emphasizing terrorism as a way to do battle without consideration of the full range of methods they describe.

Another reason they agreed to speak may be that there is a heated but hidden debate among China's strategic planners on how China's military should modernize. Some advocate a wholesale adoption of Western styles of warfare; others, such as Qiao and Wang, feel that China needs a new approach.

"Take theater missile defense, for example," said Qiao, referring to the U.S. program to create an antimissile defense system in Asia. "It's obviously part of a U.S. plan to pull China into an expensive trap. We don't want China to fall into that trap because all Chinese military officers know that we don't possess the resources to compete in an arms race."

Qiao and Wang's book is an important indication of the concern felt by the People's Liberation Army about its country's power, its strategic place in the world and especially its ability to counter overwhelming U.S. force. These concerns have become all the more urgent following the war against Yugoslavia and the May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO warplanes -- two events that prompted nationwide hand-wringing at China's weakness. They received a further boost during the latest crisis with Taiwan, which began July 9 when President Lee Teng-hui announced he wanted China to treat Taiwan's government as an equal.

Last week the United States announced a $550 million weapons sale to Taiwan, further infuriating China.

To military men such as Qiao and Wang, there is a direct connection between Kosovo and Taiwan and Tibet. "If today you impose your value systems on a European country, tomorrow you can do the same to Taiwan or Tibet," Wang said.

The roots of some of these concerns can be traced to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Chinese officers were shocked at the gap between Western -- particularly American -- and Chinese military technology.

"The country that studied the Persian Gulf War the most was not America, but China," Wang said. "The military studied all the weapons systems and all the strategy, but we two think that China cannot follow the U.S. model. We are much poorer than the United States. So we think China needs to begin to adjust the way it makes war. It's like Mao [Zedong] said to the Japanese: `You fight your war and I'll fight mine.' "

China has had problems when it has tried to embrace some weapons systems -- for example, submarines. A report in May by the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council said China has had great difficulty developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines.

China has only one operational Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile sub because technical difficulties with solid fuel for the missiles and nuclear reactors for the submarines curtailed full development. This submarine was built in 1981 but it took China's navy eight years to deploy it. It is believed that the Xia-class vessel -- along with China's five Han-class nuclear attack submarines -- have never sailed beyond China's regional waters.

In other areas, such as missiles, China appears to have done a better job at turning a weapons system into a ticket to big power status and thereby causing the United States to ponder a military engagement in the Taiwan Strait.

Two recent developments illustrate this point. Days after Taiwan's Lee announced the new policy, China declared it had mastered the technology to manufacture a neutron bomb and miniaturize nuclear weapons. Then on Aug. 3, China announced that it had tested a new long-range ballistic missile, believed to be the Dongfeng 31.

Western military experts say both weapons systems could be used against U.S. forces in Asia if Washington should come to Taiwan's aid. In addition, Russian media have reported that a Russian factory has started production of 30 Sunburn anti-ship missiles for China. The Sunburn is one of the only missiles that can travel at twice the speed of sound while skimming the ocean's surface. Once deployed, it would constitute a significant threat to U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups.

Qiao, 44 and also an officer's son, raised eyebrows in Beijing a few weeks ago when, in an interview with the China Youth Daily, he suggested that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic should have attempted to deal with NATO attacks by slipping a terrorist group into Italy and attacking NATO air bases. Terrorist bands also could have attacked population centers in Germany, France and Belgium, he said.

"I am not a terrorist and have always opposed terrorism," he said in response to a question about the article. "But war is not a foot race; it's more like a soccer game. If it was a foot race, China would never be able to catch up to the United States. But it's a soccer game and the goal is to win. It doesn't matter how you kick the ball into the net."