During the past week, and generally out of public view, the Chinese and American militaries have been holding particularly large war exercises near the island of Taiwan. Next month, Taiwan will conduct its own muscle-flexing maneuvers.
Why all this tit-for-tat display of firepower in the Far East? One possible reason is that China's anxiety has reached a new level over Taiwan's steady march toward official independence from the mainland.
The March reelection of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who's long wanted the island nation to declare a final break with China, set many of Beijing's leaders thundering, especially the military. The top brass see their main role as unifying the island with the nation.
What's new in China's war games is an apparent air dominance over the Taiwan Strait. Soviet-made SU-27 fighters are assisting a mock invasion of Taiwan. At the same time, Beijing's anxiety prompted it to set a deadline for the first time to take over Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province. Jiang Zemin, its military chief and former Communist Party leader, vowed to recover Taiwan by 2020, a date assumed by many experts to coincide with China's military being fully capable of an invasion.
But wait. Maybe the world shouldn't take China's implied threat quite so seriously. Perhaps what's really going on is a power struggle within the Communist Party, with Mr. Jiang merely using the saber-rattling against Taiwan to keep the Army in his camp.
Jiang stepped down as party chief in 2002, but retains the powerful post of party military leader. His successor, Hu Jintao, has tried to shore up his weak power base ever since. What's more, Mr. Hu seems focused on helping China's poor, and declared China would have a "peaceful rise" in emerging as a global power. He apparently wanted to avoid war with Taiwan for the sake of progress, as did his late mentor, Deng Xiaoping, who anointed him as a future party leader.
Jiang, however, recently rejected the phrase "peaceful rise," and has upstaged Hu in official settings. This power struggle, with the military as ultimate arbiter, is still playing out behind the high, red walls of the Imperial City's Zhongnanhai, the official party residences.
Just as the world waits to see who will be the next US president and whether that shifts the war on terror, so must it wait for Beijing's leaders to settle - without elections - who really runs China, and whether it will keep beating war drums against Taiwan.
War is too brutal to use for political ambitions.