China's feigned and real menace Intimidating Taiwan: Threat to invade is meant to curb talk of independence.

February 08, 1996

CHINA'S BELLICOSITY is designed to intimidate Taiwan voters from thinking about independence before the March 23 presidential election. It is also designed to intimidate President Lee Teng-hui, whose election is foreseen, from wresting more de facto recognition for Taiwan.

The U.S. response should be non-provocative. China is a country of enormous and growing economic and military power. Sharing the world with it is a major foreign policy challenge for the United States that calls for maximum prudence and minimum show-boating.

For nearly a half-century the U.S. has agreed that there is only one legal China, while insuring that the non-sovereign island state is armed to deter attack from the mainland. Since the U.S. has never guaranteed to protect Taiwan, sending a U.S. carrier through the strait recently was show-boating and an ambiguous threat. The U.S. has trade disputes with China which should be carried out on their merits, without being made bargaining chips in other games.

Relations with China will not be easy in the next few years. Deng Xiaoping, 91 and ill, is fading from the scene. President Jiang Zhemin is trying to establish his authority as successor. This explains the continuing struggle to maintain capitalist growth with Communist monopoly of political power and communications. Attempts to control the Internet domestically are the latest manifestation.

If one interpretation of events is correct, relations will become more difficult. A Hong Kong newspaper, the South China Morning Post, sees a power struggle between the army and President Jiang. It says the army is preparing an invasion of Taiwan against the orders of Mr. Jiang, who believes that would wreck China's economic growth and peaceful absorption of Hong Kong and Macao. A military out-of-control could explain the continued production of pirate CD-ROMs by an army-owned factory.

Whatever is going on in Beijing -- where the murder of a party leader is officially called a robbery gone wrong and where President Jiang has demanded ideological purity in the army -- U.S.relations with China call for the utmost wisdom and deftness -- at least until China has completed the transition it has begun.

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