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HONOLULU — In the seas around the U.S. island territory of Guam in the Central Pacific, a delegation of 10 Chinese army, navy and air force officers watched three American aircraft carriers and other armed forces go through strenuous training paces last week.

At the same time, in Beijing, the retired chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, met with Gen. Liang Guanglie, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, to discuss antiterrorism, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and regional security, according to the official PLA Daily newspaper.

These were the latest military exchanges to which U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and PLA leaders had agreed during Rumsfeld’s visit to China last fall. A crucial U.S. objective in exposing Chinese to U.S. military operations is to avert a Chinese miscalculation about U.S. capabilities.

These exchanges, in turn, are part of the most delicate and difficult balancing act for the United States in Asia, which is to keep the peace between China and the island nation of Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while the U.S. is committed to help Taiwan defend itself.

“We are trying our best to have both sides understand the true role we are playing,” says Adm. William Fallon, who commands U.S. forces in the Pacific and Asia from his headquarters above Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Fallon, the senior U.S. military officer responsible for executing what he called a policy of “evenhandedness,” said in an interview: “We want to do whatever we can to prevent the People’s Republic of China from attacking Taiwan militarily. On the other hand, we are trying to encourage the people of Taiwan to figure out some way in which they can reach a long-term accommodation with the PRC.”

That balance has been sought since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter switched U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. A displeased Congress responded by passing the Taiwan Relations Act to insist that, regardless of whether a Democratic or Republican administration was in office, Washington would take Chinese threats to Taiwan seriously.

Today, the rivalry between Taiwan and China has become more intense, and the U.S. more engaged, for two reasons:

* China has become a regional political, economic and military power, and is well on its way to becoming a global power that insists on conquering Taiwan.

* Taiwan, after decades of authoritarian rule, has become a democracy and an economic tiger whose citizens are demanding the right to self-determination.

Hostilities between China and Taiwan would almost certainly draw the U.S. into a war that would be more destructive than the Korean war (1950-1953), in which 54,246 Americans died and 103,284 were wounded, or the war in Vietnam (1954-1972), in which 58,209 Americans died and 153,303 were wounded.

In the interview, Fallon said the U.S. had moved toward an uneasy balance. “From my perspective,” he said, “we are better off today than we were a year ago.” He said when he visited China last month for the second time, he found lower levels of tension: “They have not ratcheted up their declarations. That’s helpful because, in the absence of that tension, there are more opportunities to work things out.”

As for Taiwan, he cautioned, “they should not have unrealistic expectations that, no matter what they do, we are going to come to their defense should they take steps (such as seeking formal independence) that might provoke [China].” Fallon criticized Taiwan for not spending enough to improve its own defenses.

“To their credit,” he said, “they appear now to recognize this. The military people get it and have taken steps, in my view, to start addressing some of these issues.” The admiral did not mention President Chen Shui-bian, who has advocated Taiwan independence.

On another front, Fallon has been the target of a whispering campaign in Washington, where “China hawks” like Michael Pillsbury, who consults widely on China, and retired Army Col. Larry Wortzel of the conservative Heritage Foundation complain that Fallon’s plans for exchanges with China give away too much.

Fallon’s response: “I will do the things that I believe are correct. I certainly understand the policies of the administration. I certainly understand the guidance of my boss, the Secretary [of Defense.]”

In reply to an e-mailed query, a spokesman for Rumsfeld, Eric Ruff, pointed to Rumsfeld’s agreement with Chinese leaders and said, “Admiral Fallon is following up on these.”

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