DESPITE recent bellicose actions designed to intimidate Taiwan, Communist-led China is not planning to forceably reunify the island with the mainland, Clinton administration officials say.
''It would be naive to ignore the incidents ... in the past months, but we judge that there is no imminent threat to Taiwan,'' says a senior State Department official, echoing the near-consensus view in Washington. ''There's too much riding on US-China relations now for China to take that risk.''
Adds a Defense Department official: ''Why would they even want to invade Taiwan? The economic benefits of keeping Taiwan the way it is are tremendous for China.''
Still, analysts are uneasy about China's vehement opposition to Taiwan's increasingly assertive and independent role on the international stage. Chinese ire has intensified in the runup to the Taiwan's first democratic presidential election, scheduled for Feb. 23.
In a major speech Tuesday, Chinese Premier Li Peng blamed Taiwan for the current strains. He reiterated threats to use force against Taiwan and hinted at a reunification timetable that Taiwanese leaders are certain to see as a veiled ultimatum.
Chinese officials say that reunification with Taiwan will be Beijing's first priority after Hong Kong is returned by Britain in 1997 and Macao by Portugal in 1999. Even so, an invasion of Taiwan is seen as unlikely.
Last week, The New York Times reported that China issued a warning through US emissaries that it was planning a series of attacks on Taiwan after the election, using missiles mounted with conventional warheads. The warnings follow stepped-up Chinese military activity, including troop maneuvers in southern China and the firing of missiles into the East China Sea off Taiwan.
Many analysts say the Chinese threats and military posturing are part of a comprehensive Chinese campaign to pressure Taiwan into accepting its plan for reunification and also to pressure the US into pushing Taiwan in the same direction.
In addition to threats, pressure, and subterfuge, says former US Ambassador to China James Lilley, the Chinese are forging bilateral political and economic ties with Taiwan.
For its part, Taiwan has been lobbying hard in the US for acceptance of its vision of autonomy within a single China, with the endgame of reunification deferred indefinitely.
In recent weeks the US has reiterated that force should not be used to resolve the future of Taiwan. In what many experts said was a demonstration to discourage further Chinese saber-rattling, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz last month sailed through the strait separating Taiwan and China. The White House claimed the unusual routing was due to weather conditions.
''Our principal role is for [China's] force option to be taken off the table,'' says Ambassador Lilley.
Though a full-scale Chinese assault on Taiwan is regarded as unlikely, China could resort to provocative measures that could pose a major challenge to US policymakers anxious to avoid a military confrontation and economic strains with the Asian giant.
Among other measures, China might begin harassing Taiwanese shipping or even impose a naval blockade of the island. The US would then have to decide whether to deploy the Seventh Fleet in the Strait, and if so, with what rules of engagement and what contingency plans in case of an inadvertent incident.
''You can be well short of an all-out attack and still be in a situation the US would not like to see occur,'' says University of Michigan China scholar Kenneth Lieberthal.
Relations between Beijing and Taipei worsened one year ago after Taiwan spurned a ''one-country/two-system'' reunification plan proposed by China, like the one being applied to Hong Kong. Tensions grew when Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, was given a visa last spring to attend a college reunion in the United States.
Chinese leaders worry that if Mr. Lee wins a solid electoral mandate, as expected, he will gain further international support and stature, putting him in a much stronger position in negotiations on Taiwan's future. ''There is a concern that if Lee is successful, he will be emboldened to assert Taiwan's independence,'' says the State Department official. ''So the Chinese want to set the parameters of what Taiwan is and can become in the future.''
Professor Lieberthal says China's biggest concern is that Taiwan could move toward independence with such small incremental steps that none would provide a pretext for a major response. ''The fundamental Chinese concern is that through a series of very small steps Taiwan will increase its international role and support to a point where somewhere down the pike, at a date uncertain, it may find it a reasonably safe step to declare independence,'' says Lieberthal, who travels to China frequently.
A nightmare scenario for Beijing would be an invitation for Mr. Lee to address a joint session of Congress after Taiwan's presidential election. Any such invitation, urged by Taiwan's powerful US lobby but deemed unlikely by Republican sources on Capitol Hill, would have ''incendiary'' affects on US-China relations, the State Department official says.
Taiwan has been governed by the Nationalist Party since 1949, when its leaders were forced to flee the mainland after it fell to communist forces led by Mao Zedong. Beijing sees Taiwan's defiance as a direct challenge to the vision of national greatness that has fueled the communist revolution in China.
The issue has been invested with added salience because of the uncertainty that now prevails over who will succeed China's ailing leader, Deng Xiaoping.
''During a period of succession, it makes the Chinese side more rigid,'' says Lieberthal. ''It's hard to imagine that any of Deng's possible successors would be caught on the wrong side of the nationalism issue regarding Taiwan.''