Chinese Embassy officials and visiting army officers and scholars have told U.S. analysts and experts in Washington that China is considering a new show of military force in reaction to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's recent assertion that Taiwan and China should be treated as equals.
Although the warnings could be psychological warfare designed in part to scare Taipei and Washington, U.S. analysts and Clinton administration officials expressed belief that China is genuinely weighing military options. They said these could include an amphibious assault on one of the tiny, sparsely populated islands Taiwan controls near the Chinese coast.
In a recent series of meetings with prominent, nongovernmental U.S. experts on China policy, the Chinese emissaries appeared to have been trying to measure the likely response by the United States to some limited military action, according to the analysts and officials.
"They walk in with the same message: `We're going to do something. We can't tell you what, but we're going to do something,' " said James Mulvenon, a Chinese army expert at Rand Corp., a research organization specializing in military affairs. "The goal for China would be to cause maximum impact in Taiwan, without bringing the U.S. in."
Security experts said possible military steps include a blockade of some of the small Taiwan-controlled islands, a seizure of Taiwanese supply ships, a limited air clash or an incursion by Chinese fishing boats, submarines or naval vessels into Taiwanese waters.
Clinton administration officials and China experts believe it is unlikely that Beijing would launch military action before October because such a move would spoil a scheduled mid-September meeting between President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in New Zealand, a conference in Shanghai next month featuring 300 senior executives from Western multinational companies and the Oct. 1 celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the Communist takeover in China.
"I don't think they'll do it soon, but I can't say they won't do it at all," a senior administration official said. "We have some time to play with, but we're not out of the woods."
U.S. policy experts have warned China that military action would provoke an outpouring of support for Taiwan in Congress, damaging trade ties and guaranteeing new pledges of U.S. military aid for the self-governing island.
Many analysts have warned that the United States would probably respond militarily as well. Although the United States endorses Beijing's view that there is only one China, under the Taiwan Relations Act it has committed itself to protecting the island against unprovoked attack from the mainland.
Some analysts in Hong Kong, Taipei and Washington cautioned that the warnings could be ploys designed to frighten and pressure Taipei and Washington, underlining the issue's importance to China and causing jitters in the Taiwan stock market. Simply by raising the specter of an assault, they said, Beijing is stepping up pressure on Taiwan to retreat from Lee's position and on the United States to lean more heavily on Taipei.
"It's a psychological war right now," said a Hong Kong-based military analyst. "I don't think Beijing wants necessarily to use military force."
China's state-run media have been full of menacing rhetoric since Lee redefined ties between the two sides as "special state-to-state" relations last month. The move enraged Chinese leaders, who saw it as a renunciation of the "one China" principle, and Beijing repeated its long-standing warning that it will invade Taiwan if it formally declares independence.
"Military conflict between the two sides could erupt at any moment," the Global Times, a Beijing-based tabloid run by the official People's Daily, said yesterday.
Pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong have said recently that Beijing has put submarines in "attack positions" in the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, has mobilized reserves and moved mil itary units to coastal areas in preparation for action against Taiwan.
But Andrew Yang, a senior military analyst at the Taipei-based Council of Advanced Policy Studies, said he has detected no signs of preparations for any large maneuver in the Taiwan Strait. He said such signs were apparent months before China conducted serious military exercises near Taiwan in 1996.
"There's a lot of noise in the air, which gets the hairs on my neck raised," Mulvenon said. "The real trick is sifting the bluster from the reality."
Most analysts see more than bluster. They believe Chinese leaders debated the merits of military action during their summer retreat, and some China watchers say Jiang has come under pressure from hard-line army officers.
"The People's Liberation Army definitely wants to play a stronger role in the decision-making process on Taiwan issues," said Wang Chi, a Washington-based scholar who maintains close contacts with Chinese officials. "The [army] feels strongly that it has to be more than a military exercise."
Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center, quoted Chinese officials who met with him as saying that Lee's abandonment of the "one China" principle was taken more seriously than his 1995 visit to Cornell University. After that visit, which China said violated U.S. pledges to have only unofficial relations with Taiwan, Beijing launched large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and fired missiles near Taiwan.
Beijing has followed through on actions foretold by Chinese intermediaries on earlier occasions. In 1996, Mulvenon said, Chinese who claimed connections to the army visited the Pentagon and warned that China was planning to fire a missile an hour for six days near Taiwan. Missiles were fired soon afterward, although not nearly as many as threatened. Chinese scholars visiting Rand before Premier Zhu Rongji came to Washington in April accurately forecast that Zhu would offer deep reductions in China's trade barriers in a bid to gain China's entry into the World Trade Organization, Mulvenon said.
Conflict over the Taiwan-controlled islands near the Chinese coast would echo battles fought over the islands in the 1950s, when the defense of Quemoy and Matsu were rallying cries among Americans eager to oppose communism. Because of that history, most analysts believe China would target smaller, nearby islands.
Laris reported from Beijing.