New York Times

China and U.S. Are Reported to Trade Threats on Taiwan

New York, August 13, 1999

By Jane Perlez

WASHINGTON -- Chinese government officials have warned the Clinton administration that Beijing may be compelled to take military action against Taiwan to "punish" Taiwan for what Beijing sees as moves toward independence, administration officials and China experts said Thursday.

In reply, Washington has warned the Beijing officials that action by the Chinese against Taiwan would bring retaliation by the United States, officials said. In the last week, the administration has also publicly and privately urged the two sides to resolve the situation between themselves. The message from the Chinese has not come from the very top of the government but from Chinese officials in meetings with administration officials. It was not clear, administration officials said, whether a firm decision had been made by Beijing what precise action would be taken.

If military action was taken it could range, they said, from striking at Taiwan to seizing an unpopulated island belonging to Taiwan. Military action against Taiwan itself appeared to be the most unlikely course for Beijing, several administration officials said.

But an administration official said the military situation in the Taiwan Strait was "dangerous" and "very delicate." For more than a week military aircraft from China and Taiwan have been flying close to each other over the 100-mile-wide waterway, he said.

"The chances are very real for inadvertent things or something more ominous," the official said. The United States was preparing for "contingencies" in the Taiwan Strait, another official said. But he declined to elaborate what those preparations were.

In 1996, the United States came to the closest to a military confrontation with China since the Eisenhower era after the Chinese fired a ballistic missile toward Taiwan and the Clinton administration moved two aircraft carriers into the area of the Taiwan Strait.

This time, the government in Beijing, whose top officials have just returned from an annual conference, appeared to be divided on how to respond to the statements by Taiwan in the last month. "The hardliners want to be tough, others are saying let's wait," an administration official said. He added that overall, China appeared to be "waiting to see if Taiwan could be put back into the box."

The charge d'affair at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Xiao-Min, was summoned to the office of assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Stanley Roth, last week.

In testimony the following day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Roth said that the Chinese and the Taiwanese had been given six demarches by the United States urging them to restrain their military activities in the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese government may also be sending their warnings about taking military action to test the United States, several China experts said. The government has used the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, to float stories about pending action. Thursday's edition of the paper said that 500,000 troops of the People's Liberation Army were being mobilized in a southern province.

But Pentagon officials have said in the last several days that they have seen no sign of such massive mobilization. An effort to take a smaller island belonging to Taiwan would not need such a large mobilization, however.