Last week, the Chinese navy seized a Taiwanese freighter carrying provisions to Taiwanese soldiers stationed on the tiny Taiwanese island of Matsu a few miles off the coast of the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, China was launching military aircraft on hundreds of sorties over the Taiwan Strait, test-firing a ground-to-ground ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 miles, and conducting military exercises in Fujian Province, directly across the hundred miles of water that separate China from Taiwan.

Journalists and China watchers have written these actions off as the usual Chinese bluster, provoked by Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui's declaration that China and Taiwan must negotiate as one state to another. China, they say, while angry about Lee's statements, is nonetheless trying to repair relations with the United States. For evidence, they point to China's apparent willingness to accept, sort of, President Clinton's profuse apologies for the accidental bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade. They note that China seems to have agreed, sort of, to resume talks on China's entry into the World Trade Organization later this year, and that Chinese president Jiang Zemin seems willing, sort of, to meet with President Clinton in September. Our esteemed China experts are hoping that China, in the interest of preserving U.S.-China relations, will not step up the military confrontation with Taiwan. The Clinton administration, or at least most of the Clinton administration, seems to be operating on the basis of this hope as well.

This hopefulness is dangerously misguided. The current Chinese military activities may not be mere gestures designed to intimidate Taiwan (and us). They may well be the opening phase of a serious military confrontation, one that could culminate in the coming weeks or months in some form of attack - probably not on Taiwan itself but against the tiny islands of Matsu or Kinmen (formerly known as Quemoy).

Here is the logic of such a scenario:

(1) President Lee has made a declaration regarding Taiwan's status that the Chinese government regards as unacceptable. If allowed to stand, Chinese leaders believe, Lee's position locks Taiwan onto a path which, if it does not lead to outright independence, nevertheless virtually rules out progress toward reunification until, as Lee insists, China becomes a democracy -- that is, when the current dictatorship is supplanted. If Chinese leaders do not compel Lee to retreat, they will be acknowledging that their long-proclaimed goal of reacquiring Taiwan -- sooner rather than later -- is no longer attainable. For Jiang Zemin, given the pressures from the Chinese military and other nationalist forces within his government, and given the internal crisis brewing over China's ailing economy, such an admission could mark the end of his presidency.

(2) The Clinton administration, probably unwittingly, has given a yellow light to the Chinese to take some kind of action. Clinton officials have declared that the United States is in fundamental agreement with Beijing's position that Lee's statements are unacceptable and provocative. Publicly and privately, Clinton officials have given Lee a firm dressing down. They have suspended talks about improving Taiwan's defenses. And they delayed a promised sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan, until Republicans in Congress forced theadministration to back down and go ahead with the sale.

But the administration's pressure on Lee has not worked. Lee is not buckling. Chinese leaders may well have concluded, therefore, that it is now their turn to increase the pressure on Lee. And they may have concluded further that the Clinton administration will be in a poor position to protest if they do. Sure, the administration has warned both sides against military action. But since the Clinton administration officially agrees that Lee's statements were provocative, how much can it really complain if China is provoked into action? As the Chinese see it, not much.

(3) The last time China responded to a "provocation" by Lee was in 1995, when Lee had the temerity to give a speech at his alma mater, Cornell University, while on a private visit to the United States. China conducted "tests" of its ballistic missiles off the coast of Taiwan in the summer of 1995 and then did so again, in a much more threatening manner, in the spring of 1996 in an attempt to intimidate Taiwanese voters in elections that year.

Lee's most recent statements are far more significant than his trip to Cornell University. Can the Chinese respond this time with a smaller show of force than they made in 1995 and 1996? Not if they want to maintain credibility for their position on Taiwan. Indeed, the Chinese may well believe that even another ballistic missile exercise would be insufficient in the present crisis. After all, the missile firings did not work in 1996. The Taiwanese people were not dissuaded from supporting Lee and his agenda for greater independence. Clearly, if the Chinese leadership wants to make a strong statement this time, one that will really frighten the Taiwanese electorate before it goes to the polls to elect a new president next March, then it will have to undertake a military action that goes beyond missile tests.

What might such an action entail? China does not now have the capability to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, or so we are assured by China watchers and Pentagon officials. But it does have more than enough capability to invade and seize Matsu or Kinmen, both of which are rather lightly defended by garrisons of a few thousand troops. It could launch missile strikes against them. Or it might simply set up a naval blockade around the islands.

Any of these options is plausible, but the last one strikes us as potentially most attractive to the Chinese. Without firing a shot, the Chinese could put Taiwan and, more important, the United States in a very difficult position. China would have committed an act of aggression against Taiwan, placing Taiwanese forces on Matsu or Kinmen under threat of starvation. If Lee did nothing, he would be humiliated and the Taiwanese people might become convinced that he had taken them down an unacceptably perilous path. Under such circumstances, they might well vote for a more accommodating Taiwanese leader next March, if only to have the blockade lifted. So Lee would presumably try to break the blockade. But would he begin such an action, which would mean firing the first shot in a war with China, without the support of the United States? And could he, in fact, succeed in such an effort without assistance from the U.S. Navy?

A blockade of Matsu or Kinmen would present the Clinton administration with this choice: Either send the Seventh Fleet to break the blockade, or acquiesce in Chinese aggression against Taiwan and accept the consequences of allowing China to set such a precedent, with all it would mean both for the future of Taiwan and for the U.S. position in East Asia generally. (One can only imagine what Japan would make of a U.S. failure to respond.)

We would hope that the administration would choose the first course. But we strongly suspect, as may the Chinese, that the administration would back down and desperately seek a negotiated solution to the crisis. That would mean a victory for China. The Chinese leaders would have punished and humiliated Lee, driven a wedge between the United States and Taiwan, and demonstrated to the Taiwanese people, to the other nations of East Asia, and to the world, that the United States could not be relied upon to defend Taiwan against Chinese attack.

Nor is there any inconsistency between such a Chinese plan and China's current attempts to make nice with the Clinton administration. The fact that China and the United States would be continuing to talk about China's entry into the WTO, that President Clinton and President Jiang would be meeting, and that relations between Beijing and Washington would appear in all other respects to be on the mend would only make it more likely that the Clinton administration would refrain from decisive action that might disrupt this "progress." And it would reinforce the point the Chinese want to make: that the United States should care, and does care, more about preserving good ties with China than about defending Taiwan.

We hope we are wrong. We hope the Chinese seizure of the Taiwanese freighter is not, in fact, the first step toward a total blockade. But the scenario we have outlined seems sufficiently plausible to require immediate action by the American government. To avoid the Hobson's choice a Chinese blockade or attack on Matsu or Kinmen might president, the United States must now embark on a firm policy of deterrence. The president should declare unequivocally that the United States will defend Taiwan against any form of aggression by China. Naval forces should be sent to the region to put force behind such a statement. We can engage in a scholastic debate about our misguided "One China" policy later. Right now, we need to act boldly to preserve the peace.

Reprinted from the Weekly Standard, August 16, 1999.