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China, Taiwan and The US - Tensions Rise

With China and Taiwan caught in emotional domestic politics and the United States in between, the Taiwan Strait has entered a volatile period that will last months beyond Taiwan's March 18 presidential election. John Howard reports.

The dynamics on display in East Asia's longest-running civil war seem a recipe for confrontation.

China is raising new threats to attack Taiwan, Taiwanese leaders warn intimidation will only worsen relations and the US, threatening grave consequences if China attacks, is moving an aircraft carrier off Japan.

Coupled with all this is the escalation in high-tech arms sales by Russia to China.

While there are no signs so far of China mobilising for war, Beijing has other ways to put pressure on Taiwan - and, given the stakes of heated politics, the potential for miscalculation is high.

A crisis cannot be ruled out. If there is a military conflict, then the United States must be involved because while the US acknowledges China's claim to Taiwan it is bound by law to aid the island's defence.

A Pentagon official has warned of "incalculable consequences." Soon after that statement the aircraft carrier USS Kittyhawk left its base in Japan although the Pentagon later said it was simply checking repairs.

For China, unification with Taiwan is a cherished national goal. The country's politically influential military maintains a tough line in the sand on the island, and nationalistic displays are likely during the 10-day annual session of China's legislature which opened yesterday.

In such a climate President Jiang Zemin cannot afford to look weak.

China raised fears of an immenent conflict last month by putting Taiwanese presidential candidates on notice that the 51-year seperation between the mainland and the island cannot go on. In addition to any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence, China said foot-dragging on unification could bring war.

The threats set the stage for a repeat of the tense stand-off during Taiwan's 1996 presidential election, when US and Chinese militaries made dangerous shows of force near the island.

This time, Taiwan's government rebuffed Beijing, and none of the three leading presidential candidates bowed to Beijing's terms on unification. It is a dangerous situation.

A war, however, would likely turn China into a pariah nation de-railing the economic modernisation that remains a goal of the leadership. It would also make Beijing and Washington long-term enemies and could also lead to the rearming of rival Japan.

And a Taiwan beaten into submission won't be much of a reunification.

But the signals are clear. China is saying - don't put us in a position where there's no other choice but to attack.

Beijing has also offered Taiwan talks as equals and has not ruled out negotiations on the practical matters Taipei seeks, such as fishing disputes - but only once the island agrees it is part of "one China."

Short of war, China has a range of options. It could stage war games, like it did in 1996, or mount a show of force, taking several tiny South China Sea islands Taiwan holds but withdrew its navy from last year.

More drastically, the military could impose a naval blockade that would cripple Taiwan which lacks natural resources and is dependent on trade.

Washington has delayed a congressional vote on granting China permanent normal trading rights - a key to Beijing's ambitions to join the WTO. That has upset Beijing.

President Clinton has made China's entry into the WTO a foreign-policy priority and is considering more sales of high-tech weaponry to Taiwan, something favoured by congressional conservatives whose support he needs.

Gao Heng, a Chinese security specialist said, " It will be a major war between two large countries if it happens. If one American dies, it's a big deal. If 10,000 Chinese die, so what?"

Meanwhile, Russia has security and defence arrangements with China. While the Peoples Liberation Army is years away from being strong enough to retake Taiwan alone, Russia is definitely waiting in the wings.

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