BY dispatching one of the largest United States naval forces to the Far East since the Vietnam War, President Clinton is attempting to walk a middle path between a clear commitment to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion and caving in to China's increasingly strong-armed diplomacy in the Pacific.
The first option would plunge the US into the middle of what Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based public policy research institute, describes as ''an internal, unfinished civil war.'' It would also cost China's cooperation on international issues important to the US and its allies, including nuclear disarmament.
The second option - walking away - would undermine America's standing as the preeminent Pacific power. It would open Clinton to election-year attacks by Republicans who are now criticizing the longtime US policy of ''strategic ambiguity,'' under which the US refuses to disclose how it would react to an invasion of Taiwan. ''If we didn't intervene it would be an important signal to the Japanese that they could no longer rely so much on the US,'' says Ralph Clough, who teaches Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. ''It would also affect Hong Kong. The dynamic economic development of the whole area would be affected.''
Mr. Clinton's weekend decision to deploy two aircraft carrier battle groups close to Taiwan has two other objectives. The first is to reassure US allies, especially Japan and South Korea, who depend on the US for their security.
The second goal is to convince the GOP-controlled Congress in Washington that he intends to remain fully engaged in ensuring stability in a region of crucial economic and strategic importance.
The US moves follow China's decision to stage live-fire air and sea exercises near Taiwan through March 20. They began last week when China test-fired three missiles off Taiwan and escalated March 13 with the use of live ammunition. The maneuvers are the latest phase of an effort to pressure Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to abandon what Beijing decries as a campaign for independence.
Why China frets
Mr. Lee is the leading candidate in presidential elections set for March 23. Beijing worries that with a solid electoral mandate, Lee will step up efforts to raise Taiwan's global profile. Beijing has considered Taiwan a renegade province since Chinese nationalist leaders fled there after Communists took control of the mainland in 1949. Under a 1972 US-China accord, Beijing agreed that reunification will occur peacefully.
Administration officials do not believe that the Chinese war games are a prelude to an invasion of the island. Even so, they say the two carrier battle groups are being deployed to dissuade both sides from taking actions that might increase the potential for conflict.
''The presence of the naval forces over there simply reinforces that we don't want to see a miscalculation by either party,'' says a Pentagon official.
''These exercises are being carried out in a reckless way that has some danger attached to them, but are not a prelude to an attack to take control of Taiwan,'' adds a State Department official. US officials say they have no plans to send the carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait.
The battle group led by the USS Independence, which had been stationed about 200 miles off Taiwan to monitor the Chinese missile tests, was ordered on Monday to move within about 100 miles of the island. The nuclear-powered USS Nimitz and its escorts are to be pulled out of the Gulf earlier than planned and are due to reach the South China Sea by the end of next week. Both ships carry about 55 combat aircraft.
Mr. Clough says he believes the crisis will ease after the Taiwanese elections, when he expects Lee to make a conciliatory gesture to Beijing, such as agreeing to drop a request for a UN seat.
The crisis over Taiwan comes in the context of other serious strains in relations between Washington and Beijing.
In its latest annual human-rights report, issued last week, the State Department criticized China for ''wide-spread and well-documented'' abuses. The US will use the findings as a basis for a resolution condemning China, which it will introduce when the United Nations Human Rights Commission next meets in Geneva on March 18.
The administration is also investigating evidence that China has been providing missile and nuclear weapons-related technology to Pakistan and cruise missile technology to Iran, in violation of US laws and international treaties.
Meanwhile, US officials have voiced dissatisfaction over China's slow implementation of promises to do more to crack down on the theft of US intellectual property, including videos and computer software. China's human rights, arms-technology export, and trade practices have posed a problem for the Clinton administration, which is coping with conflicting pressures from US businesses and conservatives in Congress.
Flap over sanctions
Republican lawmakers say the US should impose stringent sanctions on China. But US business leaders worry that if Clinton cracks down too hard, millions of dollars worth of trade and investment opportunities will be lost to foreign competitors.
Two weeks ago, Clinton put US loan guarantees for American businesses investing in China on temporary hold pending an investigation of the sale of the nuclear technology to Pakistan.
But sanctions - which could range from banning high-tech US exports to China to imposing tariffs on Chinese imports - have not been invoked, pending the outcome of investigations.