Beijing has moved a big piece on the dangerous gameboard of diplomacy with the United States. It has told Taiwan, in essence, to seriously negotiate reunification with the mainland or face invasion.
This new, more-specific threat of force could just be a tactic to influence Taiwan's election of a new president on March 18. China wants voters on the island not to vote for one candidate who has sought to formally declare independence.
If that's the case, China has learned a lesson from a 1996 incident in which it shot missiles near Taiwan just before an election, provoking a military standoff with US warships.
But the new threat could be real, setting an unspecified timetable for reunification. That should force Washington to be less vague in its public commitment to Taiwan's defense.
A Taiwan-obsessed Beijing seems willing to upset Congress as a vote nears that would let China join the World Trade Organization.
Tough choices may lie ahead. Beijing may need to choose between building its economy and grabbing Taiwan. The US may need to choose between saving democracy on Taiwan and boosting trade with China.
But these are extreme choices. Careful diplomacy can prevent either side from being forced to make them.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society