CHINESE missiles tests off the northern coast of Taiwan are reverberating in a region jittery over a pugnacious China.
Starting July 21, China has been testing surface-to-surface missiles less than 100 miles from Taiwan, the island where Chinese Nationalists fled after the Communist victory in 1949 and which Beijing still claims as a renegade province.
The week-long launchings are widely seen as a Chinese military move to force Taiwan to cool its bid for more international prestige. The visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the United States in June has shaken the delicate American balancing act in which Washington officially recognizes Beijing but maintains close trade and military ties with Taipei.
Taiwanese officials, who yesterday said China so far had fired four missiles, have warned that China's saber rattling will panic the rest of Asia and threaten regional peace. After China announced the missile launches last week, Taiwan's stock market plummeted.
Already, China's Southeast Asian neighbors are uneasy over its military's assertions of claims to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China has built structures on some of the atolls to bolster its claims and, this month, one of its patrol boats briefly boarded and inspected two Taiwanese fishing boats in the Spratlys. The archipelago, sitting astride key shipping lanes and believed to hold large oil reserves, is also claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
"This announcement [of the missile launchings] makes it more difficult for China's neighbors to believe it wants to settle these disputes through negotiation, not force," says an Asian diplomat in Beijing.
As the new war games got under way last week, all sides attempted to mute the tensions:
*China attempted a reassuring tone and denied that the missile launches foreshadowed a possible use of force against Taiwan. Beijing has threatened to invade if Taiwan declares independence, as some island politicians have demanded.
*Protecting Sino-American trade links, the US House of Representatives preserved China's special trading status in the American market by rejecting a resolution that would have punished Beijing for human rights abuses and withdrawn those low-tariff privileges. Dominant conservatives in Congress have championed Taiwan and forced the Clinton administration to allow the visit of Taiwan's Mr. Lee.
*Indonesia's foreign minister visited Beijing last week in a move to improve the climate for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in late July and early August. ASEAN, which includes Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, is due to hold talks with China, the US, Japan, and eight other Asia-Pacific countries in Brunei.
Playing down the missile tests signals a likely conciliatory tone by Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen during the ASEAN talks, diplomats here say. Southeast Asian countries are also concerned about China's ongoing nuclear-weapons testing despite international attempts for a global test ban.
China hopes to mend ties with the US when Mr. Qian meets US Secretary of State Warren Christopher during the ASEAN meeting, says a Chinese policy analyst. Washington has reaffirmed its one-China policy despite some congressional calls for recognizing Taiwan. But the US has refused Beijing's demand that future Lee visits be banned.
"China would like to see some show of good faith from the American secretary of state," says the Chinese analyst.
But, given domestic politics in both countries, middle ground will be difficult to achieve, say Western diplomats. Mr. Clinton has little maneuvering room, with Congress in an anti-China mood and especially angry over the recent arrest of human rights activist Harry Wu. Mr. Wu, who has uncovered embarrassing evidence of China's notorious prison-labor system, was apprehended after crossing into China from Kazahkstan last month.
In the aftermath of the Lee visit, both the US and Chinese ambassadors were withdrawn from their posts, leaving Washington and Beijing without diplomatic representation during the worst crisis in Sino-US relations in recent years.
The Lee visit was a serious blow to Chinese President Jiang Zemin at a time when he is trying to bolster his political standing and claim to succeed the ailing paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. Under pressure to placate the hawkish military, the key powerbroker in China's upcoming leadership struggle, Mr. Jiang must hold firm on Taiwan even though the Chinese military lacks the capability to invade or sustain a blockade, says a Western military analyst.
"China is playing a dangerous game," he says. "If the US and Taiwan don't soften, how do they [the Chinese] get out of this corner?"