A DRAMATIC shift in China's foreign policy is placing new emphasis on military power. Meanwhile, Washington's omnidirectional China policy is lacking the strategic focus and the acumen to address this decade's most critical security challenge: the management of relations with China.
The modernization of the military has become a high priority for Beijing, as evidenced by a sharp increase in military spending, aggressive acquisition of Russian arms, and a growing willingness on the part of China to resort to military threats in disputes with Asian neighbors.
China isn't limiting its military modernization to conventional arms. In a test conducted last May, it demonstrated its potential to launch mobile ballistic missiles far beyond its borders, reaching all of Asia and the American West Coast. Recent reports suggest that China is developing even more powerful strategic weapons, including a missile that can hit any target in the United States and a squadron of nuclear-powered submarines armed with multiple-warhead ballistic missiles.
But while China's military modernization is impressive, it is limited to selective war-fighting capabilities and will require a decade or longer before the armed forces arrive in the big leagues. In the meantime, Western policymakers continue to view Asian security in terms of balance of power and convoluted intellectual formulations.
A cunning political play
The Chinese, on the other hand, traditionally are geniuses at the art of power politics, especially as they seek to achieve political and military objectives. The ancient military philosopher Sun Tzu taught that the best way to conquer an opponent was to outwit him in strategy and diplomacy while simultaneously beating the war drums to signal the potential for devastating military action.
This year, China pursued this strategy deftly with both the Philippines and Taiwan. In its dispute with the Philippines over sovereignty of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, Chinese naval forces were deployed nearby to provide a credible threat. A louder drumbeat was heard when China test-fired several unarmed ballistic missiles into the ocean north of Taiwan - a warning to the island's growing independence movement.
Here Beijing has made it clear that it will use military force to ensure China's de jure sovereignty over Taiwan. In a speech last summer, Defense Minister Chi Hao-tian warned against ''foreign meddling'' that might encourage Taiwan's independence movement. Such statements should be taken seriously.
For more than four decades, China has threatened to invade Taiwan. But since the People's Republic of China lacked a credible military capability to overcome this island's formidable and technologically superior defense, these threats were not taken too seriously, especially when American policy firmly denounced the use of force.
But times have changed, and the topic of a possible military invasion of Taiwan is of high interest in Taipei. Some military experts now view a submarine blockade supported by coercive missile diplomacy as a realistic scenario. Taiwan's fears were reinforced last December when press reports revealed a high-level meeting of military officials assembled in Beijing to consider various ways to ''liberate'' Taiwan.
Also contributing to the militaristic shift in China's foreign policy is the ascendancy and growing influence of the armed forces in the government. Chinese President Jiang Zemin has reportedly granted the military an even stronger voice in order to secure its loyalty and the continuity of his regime.
Rising anti-American sentiment in the military bodes ill for the future of Sino-American relations too. The perception that the US is trying to ''contain'' China and prevent it from becoming a major power is common in military circles. America's confrontational style in recent years on a range of issues - including human rights, market opening, and nonproliferation - tends to give credence to this view.
Chinese and Western experts seem to agree that the Taiwan issue has now arrived at a critical juncture. This presents the US with an unprecedented security challenge requiring a high order of American leadership to prevent a political problem from sliding into a military crisis.
President Clinton should ask outgoing Sen. Sam Nunn and Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to President Bush - both respected in Washington and in Asia for their strategic wisdom - to undertake this diplomatic assignment as joint presidential envoys. The bottom line: Convince leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait that the peaceful evolution of Taiwan's future is in everyone's best interest.
Asia's stability at stake
If the US is accused of internal interference, so be it. Chinese leaders are politically savvy and knowledgeable about US obligations to Taiwan's security. But they do need to be firmly and unequivocally assured that military force against the island will not be tolerated by the US or the international community. At the same time, Taipei should realize that overt efforts to achieve international recognition for an independent Taiwan will undermine US diplomatic initiatives. To put it simply, Asia's stability is at stake.
The management of US-China relations requires the same high level of political firepower as our relations with Russia. Comprising more than one-fifth of the world's population, with a fast-growing economy, and as a historically prominent center of civilization, China is determined to regain its place in the sun. It makes sense for our interests, and for Asian stability, to work constructively with China's leaders in helping shape their country's future.
Today the greatest potential threat to Asian order is not the Chinese military, but the lack of a US-China policy rooted in American national security interests. Until the administration and Congress come to grips with this reality and speak with one voice on important strategic questions involving China, we can expect dangerous minefields ahead.