Peking's highest-level warning of the crisis came in a 30-minute exchange between Mr Clinton and the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin. All the main Chinese newspapers gave front- page coverage to President Jiang's words, which included a warning against outside interference.
"We are not committed to abandoning the use of force on the issue of Taiwan," the China Daily quoted Mr Jiang as telling Mr Clinton. "There are certain forces on the island of Taiwan and in the international community which aim to separate Taiwan from the motherland. We will not stand by and let this happen."
Taiwan insisted it would continue on the path it initiated 10 days ago when its President, Lee Teng-hui, declared that the island wanted "special state-to-state relations" with China. His statement amounted to an abandonment of the "one China" policy that has kept Peking and Taipei at peace since dialogue started between the two sides in the late 1980s, and could be interpreted as a move towards a declaration of independence.
Tensions between China and Taiwan are the worst since President Lee visited the United States three years ago to try to raise Taiwan's international profile, a visit likewise seen as moving towards independence. China then held a series of provocative military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, and Washington sent two aircraft carriers to the region. This time round, the President-to-President call came swiftly.
That it was made while relations between China and the United States remain inflamed over the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May suggests neither side wants the crisis to deepen further. And Peking has not yet taken concrete action against the island it regards as a renegade province.
A Western diplomat in Peking said: "China moves slowly. It has been trying to recover Taiwan for nearly 50 years, so it will not make any sudden decisions now, but that does not mean it will not act at all."
While opinion polls in Taiwan indicate support for Mr Lee's statement, fears of a military show of force have prompted the Taiwan stock market to drop 13 per cent since the crisis started. The Peking-backed Wen Wei Po newspaper in Hong Kong said China had held "wartime mobilisation drills" near Taiwan, and that sailors gathered for the exercises sang: "We will liberate Taiwan."
Taiwan and China were divided in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled to the island after the Communists won China's civil war.Reuse content