A CONTEST of high-stakes brinkmanship between China and Taiwan is underway in the Taiwan Strait.
In recent days, China has ratcheted up pressure to influence the island's March 23 presidential election and block what Beijing regards as a drive for Taiwanese independence.
As part of week-long defense exercises, the Chinese military on Friday sent three unarmed M-9 ballistic missiles crashing into the sea near Taiwan's two major ports, Keelung and Kaohsiung. On Saturday, it raised the ante and announced that live-fire war games would begin tomorrow.
Fearing that Taiwan's quest for international recognition will lead it to declare independence, Beijing is trying to undercut the expected victory of incumbent President Lee Teng-hui, an outspoken advocate of a rising Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, where Chinese nationalists fled after their defeat by mainland Communists in 1949, and is pushing Taiwan to reunify. China vows to invade if Taiwan officially endorses independence.
"You have a very sophisticated war of nerves going on right now," says Michael Ying-mao Kau, a China expert at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
"Beijing is trying to find the threshold of threat that will influence these elections," adds Mr. Kau, who also spends part of his year in Taiwan running the 21st Century Foundation, a Taipei think tank. "Beijing's calculation is that it almost has to push to the brink of war. It's a very tricky game," he says.
By trying to cow Taiwan into compliance, China increasingly raises the possibility of confrontation with the United States and Asian countries, Western and Asian analysts say. Few Taiwanese and Western officials expect China to invade given the threat of regional conflict and the danger to Beijing's volatile, trade-dependent economy. But the chance of a misfired missile landing in Taiwanese territory or live ammunition striking ships or aircraft worries foreign officials and diplomats.
Tomorrow's exercises using live ammunition, which runs through March 20, will be close to key shipping and air corridors at the southern entrance to the Taiwan Strait. Amphibious maneuvers involving 150,000 men and hundreds of aircraft and ships on the coasts of Fujian and Guangdong Provinces are expected to begin soon.
In the event of an accident, the US will be under great pressure to come to Taiwan's aid, Taiwanese and Western analysts say. Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979 but maintains close unofficial and military ties with the island. Yesterday, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher called the Chinese war games "reckless " and "risky."
The Taiwan Strait tensions come as relations between China and the US are feeling new strains. Washington is considering whether to impose economic sanctions on Beijing for its alleged sales of nuclear-weapons technology to Pakistan and equipment to produce chemical poison gases to Iran.
"This year, I think relations between the US and China will get much worse," predicts a Chinese foreign-policy analyst.
Already, the mainland's military display is creating the semblance of a blockade - China's most potent threat to Taiwan - and has put the 400,000-strong Taiwanese military on high alert.
Taiwan, which boasts the world's 14th-biggest economy and second-largest foreign-exchange reserves, said it will divert more than 300 flights to the south to avoid China's military target area. More than 150 flights from Hong Kong, mainly to Japan and Korea, will also be affected.
Although life in bustling Taiwan appeared largely unruffled by the cross-strait face-off, and transportation and trade were generally not disrupted, Taiwanese did rush to stockpile rice supplies and convert savings into US dollars. Banks were forced to impose a limit of $3,000 per transaction. The government also moved in to prop up the stock market, which plummeted last year when China stepped up military pressure.
"I want to emphasize that force and threats will not obstruct our pursuit of democracy, freedom, and dignity," a defiant President Lee said in a televised speech over the weekend.
Although China wants to reinforce its claim to Taiwan, mainland bellicosity has angered many Taiwanese, says Andy Chang of Tamkang University's Mainland Research Center in Taiwan. About 15 percent of Taiwan's 21 million people are from China and worry about mainland relatives. A small group of businessmen enriched through China trade "are very anxious because they don't know where policy is going," says Mr. Chang. Many others feel impotent to affect the course of events.
"These exercises are generally very serious. They have really turned the common people against the mainland," Chang says. "This has not become a major crisis yet. But people are starting to think that if relations continue to worsen, it could lead to war."
Across the Taiwan Strait, increased pressure on Taiwan is good domestic politics for the fractious mainland Communist leadership. With Marxism eroded by market-style reforms and official corruption, Beijing increasingly beats the drum of strident nationalism. Despite the international and economic risks, Beijing's Taiwan policy resonates among many Chinese.
"Ever since I was a youth, I knew Taiwan was a part of China," says Zhou Feng, a government engineer. "China must prevent it from slipping away."