Chinese Embassy officials and visiting army officers and scholars have warned 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, U.S. analysts and Clinton administration officials to whom the information has been passed expressed belief China is genuinely weighing military options, including an amphibious assault on one of the tiny, sparsely populated Taiwan-controlled islands near the Chinese coast. In a recent series of meetings with the unofficial U.S. experts on China policy, the Chinese officials appeared to have been trying to measure the likely response by the United States to such a move, they explained.
"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, an expert on the People's Liberation Army at Rand, a think tank 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, seizure of Taiwanese supply ships, an incursion by Chinese fishing boats, submarines or naval vessels into Taiwanese waters or a limited air clash.
Clinton administration officials and other China experts told the Washington Post they think it is unlikely that Beijing would launch military action before October to avoid spoiling a 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 victory in China.
U.S. policy experts have warned China that military action would provoke an outpouring of support for Taiwan in the U.S. Congress, damaging U.S. 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 be likely to respond militarily as well. Although the United States officially 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 escalating pressure on Taiwan to retreat from Lee's position and on the United States to lean more heavily on Taipei.
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 if Taiwan formally declares independence.
"Military conflict between the two sides could erupt at any moment," said the Global Times, a Beijing-based tabloid run by the People's Daily.