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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Analysts: U.S., China Military Clash Unlikely

WASHINGTON -- The scramble for political power -- in Beijing and Washington -- is the wild card in the latest confrontation between the United States and China over the future of Taiwan.


Most U.S. military and intelligence experts foresee a relatively benign outcome to China's display of military might in the Straits of Taiwan.


"We are going to be very careful to keep our forces well away from the Chinese,'' said one U.S. military source in describing the deployment of a U.S. fleet, including two carrier battle groups, in defense of Taiwan. "This should end without an untoward incident.''


But what if Jiang Zemin, in an effort to win the backing of the Chinese military leadership, orders missiles fired at the island capital of Taipei? Zemin, China's president, is still maneuvering to succeed Deng Xiaopin, the 91-year-old leader of 1.2 billion mainland Chinese.


And how would President Bill Clinton respond? House Republicans on Monday again demanded that Clinton take a tougher line against Beijing's effort to intimidate Taiwanese voting in the March 23 presidential election.


Although the United States has no treaty commitment to provide military protection for Taiwan, election-year pressure and criticism from Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, the likely Republican presidential nominee, could prompt Clinton to react.


Army General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, already has contingency plans to reply to a Chinese missile attack on Taiwan. "We'd probably remove the source of the problem,'' said one Joint Chiefs planner. That means hitting the Chinese Army Artillery unit based near Shanghai, the launch site for ballistic missiles firing dummy warheads on either side of Taiwan last week.


"Cruise missiles would be the weapon of choice,'' said one Pentagon planner. "You don't risk losing a pilot over China.''


Those are nightmare scenarios that some experts believe could become reality only if political pressures lead to the wrong decisions.


"The danger is miscalculation or accident,'' said Stanley Roth of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Roth sees a currently weak and uncertain leadership in Beijing as escalating the crisis with Taiwan.


To Ralph Clough of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., the Clinton administration is caught between two clever foes.


"It's kind of a game of chicken on both sides, dragging the United States in,'' Clough said. "Nobody wants war, so the problem is how to reverse the drift.'' Jiang has ratcheted up the pressure on Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, arguing that Taiwan was pursuing a course of independence with important help from the United States. Jiang recalled China's ambassador to Washington last year after Clinton, under Republican pressure, reversed himself and permitted the leader of Taiwan to visit the United States.


To Beijing, Clinton's decision reversed the 1972 landmark policy of a Republican president. It was President Nixon who proclaimed Beijing as the government of the only China the United States recognized.


Jiang could have ignored Lee's visit and accepted Clinton's view that the Taiwanese president's trip to the United States was a mistake. But Jiang came under attack by China's military leadership who saw him as an inexperienced former mayor of Shanghai.


Deng has attempted to make Jiang his successor. It is the key backstage issue as the Chinese Communist Party meeting opens Tuesday in Beijing. Jiang is also party general secretary.


But expert China watchers such as Roth said Jiang's uncertain political fate contributed to the saber rattling in the Straits of Taiwan. "A more confident Beijing leadership would say the hell with it,'' Roth said.


Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state under former president George Bush, has complained that Taiwan has manipulated Clinton and the Republican Congress into the middle of the crisis with China. "They [Taiwan] have played us like a fiddle,'' Eagleburger told reporters.


But it was the Bush administration that was also manipulated by Taiwan during another election year -- 1992. It was then that Bush ignored Nixon's one-China policy in hopes of winning voters in his home state of Texas.


Bush agreed to Taiwan's request to buy 150 F-16 jet fighters made at a Fort Worth, Texas, plant now owned by Lockheed Martin. Bush's approval overrode refusals to make such sales by four other presidents. That F-16 sale remains a point of bitter contention. The first 26 F-16s are scheduled to arrive in Taiwan in September.


The Chinese government cites the high-tech weaponry as another example of U.S. efforts to divide China and weaken its military posture.