Three years after a tense standoff between US warships and the Chinese military in the Taiwan Strait, the world's superpower and Asia's fastest rising force may again be headed toward a contest of wills over Taiwan.
A tentative US plan to create a "theater" missile defense system to protect US forces in Asia - and Taiwan's request to be under that security umbrella - infuriates Beijing.
That anger was made clear to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in meetings with China's leaders March 1 and 2. The issue may be front and center again when Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visits the US in April.
Ever since 1979, when the US opened diplomatic ties with the communist mainland while keeping defense links with Taiwan, Beijing has worried the US might one day militarily support the island if it declared official independence.
"China is afraid that Taiwan could be emboldened by the theater missile defense system to move toward independence," says Michael Swaine, an expert on the Chinese military at the California-based Rand think tank.
Taiwan has had de facto autonomy since its 1949 split from the mainland, but Beijing has threatened to invade the island if it attempts to formally secede.
During Taiwan's first free presidential poll in 1996, Beijing launched a series of live missiles off the island's coast, and only halted the "tests" after Washington sent two aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait.
The Pentagon recently issued a study that says China is orchestrating an arms build-up on its east coast, opposite Taiwan, and could have the capability to launch an invasion of the democratic island as soon as 2005.
Some defense planners have urged the US to protect Taiwan from a Chinese missile attack with a "star Wars" like theater defense. The system, which is still largely on the drawing boards, would aim to shoot down incoming enemy missiles in midair.
Taiwan's president recently called for the island to be integrated into the American-planned antimissile structure, but any moves to do so could spark an attack by China.
If extended to cover Taiwan, the theater missile defense program would also require Taiwan's integration into the US satellite surveillance system, used to detect missile launches, says Mr. Swaine. Such a step would signal "a much closer military-to-military relationship between the US and Taiwan," he adds.
Xiang Chunyi, a senior legislator in China's National People's Congress, says initial reports that the US might provide antimissile defenses to Taiwan "make it appear that Washington wants to transform Taiwan into an American protectorate."
The antimissile program, if it goes ahead, could also trigger an arms race between China and the US.China now has 300 to 400 nuclear weapons, an arsenal less than 1-10th the size of the US, and only a handful of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
While Beijing now considers those weapons an adequate deterrent to a nuclear first strike, the entire nuclear equation would be changed if the US had the capability to shoot down a limited number of missiles.
The creation of a working anti-missile system to protect the US "could force China to increase the number of its ICBMs," says Swaine.
Virtually from the moment Ms. Albright arrived in Beijing, she and the Chinese leadership began trading criticisms over everything from weapons sales to human rights as they thrashed out competing visions for future ties.
Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan opened the duel with an apparent description of China critics in the US Congress as "a handful of anti-China elements within the US [who] are going all-out to ... obstruct the normal development of US-China relations."
The US Senate recently voted 99 to 0 to urge President Clinton to condemn Chinese rights abuses during an upcoming UN human rights meeting in Geneva.
In meetings with Premier Zhu and President Jiang Zemin, Albright stressed there was no "hidden conspiracy in the United States against China, but that when it came to human rights and nonproliferation ... this was a bipartisan concern of most Americans," says State Department spokesman James Rubin.
In its annual rights report on China last week, the State Department said Beijing's rights record deteriorated sharply late last year with the arrests and lengthy jail terms for the founders of the fledgling opposition China Democracy Party.
Albright said March 2 she told China's leaders that "trying to organize a political party is not a threat or a crime; it is a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights."
In perhaps the strongest call for political change ever made by an American official here, she called on Beijing's Communist Party rulers to open China's doors to a multiparty system.
Albright's proposal is likely to increase tensions with Beijing, which is already reading in the tea leaves of recent American actions a conspiracy to contain China's rise:
*The US administration recently blocked an American satellite sale to a Chinese-dominated consortium with alleged ties to China's military;
*Congress is expected to release a report soon that charges China has for decades engaged in technological espionage in the US in part to modernize its military;
*A Chinese national was detained this week in California on suspicion that he tried to illegally obtain sophisticated gyroscopes that can be used in missile-guidance systems.
"With its criticism of human rights and plans to step up its security presence in Asia, the US is acting like a global policeman" who hopes to arrest China, says Chinese Congressman Xiang.