As Taiwan approaches the first presidential election that the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) might lose, tensions between Beijing and Taipei are likely to rise. U.S. policy has, unfortunately, made the situation more flammable.

Indeed, reports are circulating that Richard Bush, head of the American Institute, Washington’s unofficial embassy in Taipei, has told Taiwan to cease its provocative behavior, lest the United States find itself pulled into a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. However, without a change in Washington’s policy, such warnings are likely to remain unheeded.

Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui triggered a new escalation in tensions with his call for conducting Beijing-Taipei relations on a “state to state” basis. China’s response was predictably hostile; China has established two missile bases near its coast, with the weapons apparently targeted on Taiwan. Taipei officials, including Vice President Lien Chan, responded by calling for development of a fleet of long-range missiles to deter potential invaders.

Lee even indicated that his country already possesses some offensive missiles, and warned that such mainland cities as Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing would suffer “terrible consequences” if China attacked Taiwan. This appears to be a not very subtle hint that Taiwan possesses, and is prepared to use, nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in response to any attack.

Although responsible officials in neither capital want war (and certainly not a nuclear war), the possibility of mistake is real. Beijing is suffering from an economic slowdown and political uncertainty; assertion of sovereignty over Taiwan is one of the few things on which most mainland Chinese agree. Likewise, given Lien’s otherwise lackluster presidential campaign, the KMT’s tough stance toward Beijing may be its best hope for retaining power in the March election (though he recently seemed to distance himself from Lee’s rhetoric).

As a result, the potential for a military confrontation seems dangerously high. Yet the Clinton administration’s policy is both incoherent and dangerous. By misleading both parties, the U.S. risks increasing the chances of war.

In Washington, the debate has been disappointing. Richard Bush has reiterated the administration’s line: firm support for a “one China” policy and equally firm criticism of Taipei’s attempt to act independently. The readiness to appease Beijing was evident when an unnamed administration official criticized Lee’s comments on state-to-state relations and his failure to offer “a little bit more of an outstretched hand to get dialogue going.”

At the same time, the administration has been inconsistent in its policy toward weapons sales to Taiwan. Yet for all the explicit calls for restraint, the administration has implicitly promised to defend the island state.

This is a dangerous mix. By rejecting Taiwan’s attempt to enhance its status, Washington has undercut its own credibility in threatening military intervention. The administration’s fulsome affirmation of Beijing’s position encourages China to act more belligerent. Yet Washington’s implicit defense guarantee encourages Taipei to expect U.S. military support in the case of trouble. The result could be a risky game of international chicken, leading to a formal declaration of independence. Unfortunately, although Republican critics of administration policy are more consistent, they are also more dangerous. GOP congressmen are pushing the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would enhance the military relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. Some conservative activists want to formally recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China. They would threaten to use force if Beijing acted against Taipei.

The risks of such an approach are many. China would likely sever diplomatic relations with the U.S. and, despite its modest military, could not easily ignore a U.S. decision to recognize Taipei, let alone a Taiwanese declaration of independence. A measured Chinese response — seizing some essentially indefensible Taiwanese offshore islands, for instance — would force Washington to choose between humiliating retreat and dangerous escalation. In neither case could the U.S. count on the support of its East Asian allies. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have all emphasized that their “mutual” defense treaties with the U.S. do not cover contingencies in the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. should adopt a new policy of conflict avoidance. Taiwan’s future should be up to Taiwan’s people, not the communist rulers in Beijing. However, responsibility for defense, like the decision on independence, should be left with Taipei.

Washington should make clear that Taiwan will pay the price for miscalculating any move toward independence. The capitalist and democratic island is a valuable friend, but the U.S. has at stake no interests that justify risking war with nuclear-armed China. Washington should, however, sell Taipei the weapons that would allow it to defend itself.

Obviously, China would be foolish to confront the U.S. militarily. But nationalism sometimes causes nations to do stupid things, and Beijing rationally believes Washington has less at stake in Taiwan than does China.

Although the Clinton administration has proved sadly ready to go to war, so far its adversaries have been pitiful. Conflict involving China would be vastly different. Washington needs to extricate itself from potential conflict before war erupts in the Taiwan Strait.

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