Secretary of State Warren Christopher, accusing China of "reckless" military provocations against Taiwan that "smack of intimidation and coercion," announced Sunday that the United States is responding by moving warships closer to the island.
In Washington's strongest public warning yet about China's belligerent round of military moves near Taiwan, Christopher said China will face grave consequences from the United States if it decides to use force against Taiwan.
Pentagon officials said Sunday that President Clinton and top administration policymakers will decide in the next few days whether to send U.S. Navy ships into the Taiwan Strait itself as an even stronger sign of American opposition to the Chinese moves--which have included firing three missiles near Taiwanese ports and scheduling live-ammunition maneuvers in the region this week and next.
Officials said they have directed the aircraft carrier Independence, which is in the East China Sea with a few screening ships, to move closer to the strait that separates mainland China from Taiwan, an island that Beijing maintains is part of its territory.
The aircraft carrier Nimitz also is being sent to the region from its station in the Persian Gulf, the Washington Post reported today, and is scheduled to arrive with support ships within two weeks.
The officials also said that the destroyer O'Brien, the guided-missile frigate Hewitt and the destroyer McCloskey, which are elsewhere in the region, have been dispatched to join the Independence. The officials said that the Aegis-class cruiser Bunker Hill, which has been at the southern end of the Taiwan Strait monitoring the Chinese missile tests, will also join the group if the ships are ordered into the strait.
The U.S. naval movements come in the face of a warning from China for foreign ships and aircraft to stay out of the area during the upcoming round of live-ammunition military exercises, which are scheduled to begin Tuesday.
At a Beijing news conference today, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen warned against direct U.S. military intervention.
"Should the foreign forces support and connive with the attempt by the Taiwan authorities to create independence or to split the motherland, then it could lead to a chaotic situation in Taiwan," Qian said. "Should the foreign forces refrain, then there is no need to worry about tensions."
China is seeking to intimidate Taiwan on the eve of the island's first direct presidential election March 23, hoping to discourage the pro-democracy movement by raising voters' fears that any drive for formal independent status could lead to war with China.
As the Clinton administration takes a more confrontational posture toward China's saber rattling, it is using naval deployments as the favored tactic.
In December, the Nimitz, accompanied by other warships, led the first passage by a U.S. carrier group through the Taiwan Strait since 1979, when the United States cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized Beijing as the only government of China.
As the Nimitz sailed through the strait, U.S. officials declined, at least publicly, to connect the action to American displeasure with China's Taiwan policy. But Washington has now dropped any pretense about the purpose of U.S. naval activity in the region.
Christopher, National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, speaking on nationally televised news programs Sunday, sought to send a clear public warning to China against allowing its gestures to escalate.
In their interviews, the U.S. officials declined to say whether the U.S. would come to Taiwan's aid militarily if it was attacked. Rather, they stressed repeatedly that any attack would bring "grave consequences" for China.
Conservative Republicans in Congress recently called for giving Taiwan guarantees of U.S. military protection, but administration officials oppose granting such a blank check.
While the United States does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, the island's rise as one of the newly powerful "tigers"--rapidly developing industrial nations along the Pacific Rim--means that a Communist Chinese takeover would be a major blow to U.S. efforts to foster Asian economic growth and political stability.
Yet administration officials were reluctant to link their concern about China's military posture with U.S. trade policy toward the mainland. China has developed into a major trading partner for the United States--and a manufacturing location of choice for a growing list of U.S. companies. So the administration officials said that the White House still plans to recommend an extension of most-favored-nation trade status for China when the issue comes up again in June.
Times staff writers Art Pine in Washington and Rone Tempest in Beijing contributed to this report.