Establishing the threshold for a new round of military escalation in the tense week leading up to Taiwan's first direct presidential election, Chinese Premier Li Peng on Sunday warned the United States to keep its warships out of the Taiwan Strait.
"If some foreign force makes a show of force in the Taiwan Strait, that will not be helpful but will make the situation all the more complicated," Li told reporters during a news conference at the Great Hall of the People here.
The U.S. aircraft carrier Independence is positioned off Taiwan's eastern coast to monitor ongoing Chinese military maneuvers. A second carrier, the Nimitz, is en route from the Persian Gulf and is expected to arrive in the area this week.
In December, the Nimitz, accompanied by other warships, led the first passage by a U.S. carrier group through the 100-mile-wide strait between the mainland and Taiwan since 1979, when the United States cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized Beijing as the only government of China.
In acknowledging the December passage, U.S. officials had asserted that the carrier group made the trip only to avoid bad weather. But it amounted to an extraordinary show of U.S. naval power at a time of increasing tensions.
In Washington on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta refused to say whether the U.S. intends to defy Li's warning and order warships to enter the strait any time soon.
"There's nothing further to be said about where we will deploy those vessels," Panetta said on the CBS-TV news program "Face the Nation." "That's something I'm not going to tell you or the country at this point."
Panetta described China's military maneuvers near Taiwan as "reckless and frankly provocative." In contrast, he described the Clinton administration's reaction to the Chinese military activity as "prudent . . . cautious . . . and very clear."
China's Li did not specify what "complications" would arise if the United States did send any of its ships into the strait. But specialists on the Chinese military predict that such a move would lead to an expanded or extended wave of military exercises near Taiwan or to the firing of more M-9 ballistic missiles at targets near the island.
For more than a week, China has been conducting air and naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait southwest of Taiwan. During that time, the Chinese have fired four unarmed M-9 missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, at sea targets just off the Taiwanese coast.
The naval exercises had been scheduled to end Wednesday. But last week, China dashed hopes for an easing of tensions when it announced another set of exercises in the Haitan island group off the mainland coast that is set to begin today and conclude next Monday, two days after Taiwan's election.
In Taiwan, the influential China Times newspaper, quoting military sources, reported Sunday that People's Liberation Army forces may take advantage of high tide today to practice amphibious landings on an island only 11 miles from the Taiwan-held island of Matsu.
China could be expected to televise the beach landings on its evening news, easily monitored by satellite in Taiwan. The purpose of amphibious landings, said Hong Kong-based military analyst Tai Ming Cheung, would be to present them to the Taiwanese population as a mock invasion of Taiwan.
China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has accused Taiwan's leaders, especially President Lee Teng-hui, of seeking to make the island, with a population of 21 million, an independent state.
In a campaign speech Sunday, Lee, who is favored to win Saturday, accused China of practicing "state terrorism" with the military exercises and menacing missile firings.
"[China's] power comes from guns, and it relies on its guns to maintain its power," Lee said in the televised speech. "The biggest threat to its power is the democratic election across the Taiwan Strait."
Despite the defiant talk of Lee and other political leaders, the Chinese military posturing clearly has spooked some Taiwanese.
Several hundred civilians living on some of the islands near the latest military exercises have been evacuated. Travel agencies on Taiwan have recently offered "antimissile" tour packages to the United States and other destinations as airline officials report a substantial increase in outgoing traffic.
Lee told supporters at a rally Sunday that he needs more than 50% of the presidential vote in order to have a clear mandate from the people for his policies.
The candidate listed by most polls as running second in the race, Lin Yang-kang, a former Nationalist Party colleague of Lee's who was expelled from the party, supports unification of Taiwan and the mainland and opposes Lee's push for a separate Taiwanese seat in the United Nations--positions much more palatable to Beijing.
Despite its dismissal of Taiwan's election as a plot by those seeking independence, Beijing would nevertheless celebrate if Lee's vote fell below 50% while Lin and other pro-unification candidates registered higher-than-expected scores.
Times staff writer Stanley Meisler in Washington contributed to this report.
* CHINA'S OBSTACLE: Taiwan's president has become an obsession with China. A5