Stand by Taiwan

THE Chinese government is making a serious miscalculation in its threats of military force against Taiwan. First, because such threats are hardly the way to woo the Taiwanese back into the national fold. Second, because the United States cannot be expected to stand by and do nothing in a friend's time of need.

The dispute dates to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists retreated to the island after their loss to Mao Zedong's Communists. Since gaining international recognition as China's sole government in the early 1970s, Beijing has tolerated Taiwan on the grounds that Taipei accepted a ''one China'' principle.

In recent years, however, China has been alarmed by growing pro-independence sentiment on Taiwan. It has chosen to misinterpret recent actions by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui seeking more recognition and a greater international role for Taiwan as moves to separate the province from China. Enraged when the US granted President Lee a visa for a private visit last year, China responded with a series of missile tests north of the island. Recently it leaked warnings of a planned invasion after Taiwan's March 23 presidential elections. This week it dropped hints of a military exercise involving 400,000 personnel on the coast opposite Taiwan. The US, in response, last month sent an aircraft carrier through the Straits of Taiwan.

The issue has become entangled in the struggle over who will succeed ''paramount leader'' Deng Xiaoping. No Chinese leader can appear soft on Taiwan. US officials think the Chinese are also engaging in psychological warfare to scare pro-independence voters in the upcoming election. But they rightly warned a visiting Chinese vice premier Feb. 5 that under US law, any use of force against Taiwan would be ''of grave concern'' to the US.

There's no need for this to get out of hand. President Lee should reiterate that his government accepts the ''one China'' principle. The US Congress should refrain from inviting him to address it if he is reelected, although he has a right to visit unofficially. Beijing should tone down its belligerent rhetoric and talk nice.

But if China goes ahead with exercises, they should occur under the watchful eyes of the US Seventh Fleet.

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