WASHINGTON — IN his seminal treatise on military strategy, ''The Art of War,'' ancient Chinese scholar Sun Tzu wrote that the best commander is one who achieves victory without actually fighting a battle.
More than 1,600 years later, China's Communist leaders are trying to adhere to their forebears dictum in a mounting confrontation with Taiwan.
By firing missiles near the island and making other provocative gestures, Beijing apparently seeks to halt what it regards as a drive by Taiwan toward declaring official independence and to bully it into reunification.
But, Beijing also vows to use force if necessary and, in recent days, has been massing ships, aircraft, and an estimated 150,000 troops in coastal Fujian Province near Taiwan. US officials don't believe the forces are for an assault, but for major war games aimed at scaring off votes for Taiwan's assertive president, Lee Teng-hui, the favorite in its first democratic presidential election on March 23.
Still, US military and independent analysts are concerned and almost daily weigh the odds that the war games could be a cover for an invasion of Taiwan.
The overwhelming conclusion so far: Not only is an assault unlikely, but China's chance of success without unacceptably huge losses and uncertain political and economic consequences is dim at best.
''We do not believe they [the Chinese] have the capability to conduct amphibious operations of the nature that would be necessary to invade Taiwan,'' asserts Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A report published this week by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington think tank, says it is doubtful China will acquire the capability to assault Taiwan for at least a decade. The report examined Chinese and Taiwanese military strengths, budgets, hardware, and strategies. It found that ''neither the focus of Chinese [weapons] acquisition priorities nor its resource base suggests that China will have the capability to conduct such an operation, at an acceptable cost, now or by 2005.''
Head-to-head comparisons of the rival militaries make such assessments seem absurd. With 2.9 million personnel, almost 5,000 combat planes, 12,300 tanks and armored vehicles, 14,500 pieces of artillery and 1,150 warships, the Chinese People's Liberation Army is the world's largest armed force. By comparison, Taiwan has some 440,000 personnel, 400 combat aircraft, 140 warships, 1,100 tanks and armored vehicles, and 990 heavy guns.
But experts say such comparisons are misleading. Beijing, they say, has only just begun developing naval and air forces capable of projecting power beyond China's shores. That effort is underscored by its recent purchases from Russia of four Kilo Class diesel submarines and 26 Su-27 combat jets, and a reported Israel-aided effort to develop an indigenous jet fighter.
For now, though, China remains a long way from having the forces needed for such an enormous undertaking as crossing the 130-mile Strait of Taiwan and subduing the capitalist island that it has regarded as a renegade province since nationalist leaders fled there at the end of the civil war in 1949.
The bulk of China's Navy comprises coastal craft. It has only about 50 major warships, and most lack effective air defenses. Therefore, the Navy could not provide the massive firepower and anti-aircraft cover required by a major invasion force.
Furthermore, says John Downing of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China has only 54 landing ships. ''Even in the unlikely event they enjoy 100 percent serviceability, they could land only 6,100 troops and 350 tanks,'' he says. Mr. Downing adds that China's equivalent of the US Marines numbers just one brigade of 5,000 men.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says China also lacks sufficient numbers of strike aircraft.
''You cannot assault Taiwan in terms of a classic amphibious assault without getting involved in major air battles,'' he says. ''Otherwise, your amphibious assault forces are vulnerable. So, you are talking about a lot of blood, a lot of aircraft, and a lot of naval craft that don't exist.''
China's nuclear arsenal is not considered a factor in invasion scenarios by most experts, because winds could carry atomic fallout back to the mainland.
Few beaches for landing
For its part, Taiwan has only two or three beaches suitable for massive troop landings and its military strategy is geared for a hard-nosed defense, experts say. Its troops and pilots are well-trained. Though somewhat aged, its Air Force and Navy comprise US-made weaponry and are judged superior to many of their Chinese counterparts.
Taiwan plans to modernize both its Navy and its Air Force. It has reportedly been shopping for submarines and is shortly to begin replacing its Air Force of 400 F-5 and F-104 fighters with 130 new indigenously produced jet fighters, 150 US-made F-16s, and 60 French-made Mirage 2000s.
It has greatly improved its technical capabilities with advanced electronic warfare, command-and-control systems, and four US-made E-2T Hawkeye early-warning radar planes, experts say. Says General Shalikashvili: ''The capacity of the Taiwanese to defend themselves now is, I think, adequate.''
Most experts believe China is well aware it cannot invade Taiwan. For that reason, they expect that it will escalate its provocative ''half measures'' after the presidential election if the new Taiwanese leadership still refuses to discuss reunification in earnest and presses on with moves that Beijing believes are aimed at gaining broader international stature and independence.
''It's classic Sun Tzu in the sense that you defeat the enemy without a battle. In this case, you deter the enemy ... who is Lee Teng-hui,'' says the US defense official referring to Taiwan's president.
Among other measures, China could impose a naval blockade on Taiwan or one of the smaller islands it controls. Some experts, however, doubt the Chinese Navy can sustain a long-term cordon sanitaire. Alternatively, it could mine Taiwanese harbors or shipping lanes, which would severely hit the island's economy, they say.
One measure to which Taiwan would have enormous problems responding would be missile attacks that China has reportedly warned the Clinton administration it is prepared to mount, experts say. The island has no effective antimissile defenses.
While the physical damage from a conventional intermediate-range missile strike would be minimal, the psychological impact would be enormous. That was shown last July when the Taipei stock market went into a tailspin after China fired ''test'' missiles into the sea about 80 miles north of the island.
Can't count on US help
An unknown factor is the US response to stepped-up Chinese military posturing. The Clinton administration has made it clear to Taiwan that it cannot rely on US military intervention, while warning China against using force to resolve the dispute over the island's future.
Whatever new steps it decides to take, China will have to act with extreme prudence, experts stress. A weak action will have little influence on Taipei and cause China a humiliating loss of face. An overly strong action could provoke a Taiwanese military reaction that would send shock waves throughout East Asia and across the Pacific, igniting a major crisis that both sides, their neighbors, and the US are anxious to avoid.