LEADING ARTICLE : Keep China in check

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The United States must stand firm in the face of China's growing belligerence towards Taiwan. More military exercises are to be held close to Taiwan this week, ahead of next weekend's presidential elections. Yesterday Li Peng, the Chinese premier, warned Washington not to send its navy into the Taiwan Straits. Ironically, far from forcing the US to withdraw, the Chinese intimidation of Taiwan only underscores how vital the US is to maintaining a peaceful balance of power in the region.

South-east Asia's economic growth is also giving rise to an arms race in which economically successful but often authoritarian regimes are competing for power and status. China, which will soon be economically and militarily the dominant force in the region, is perhaps the most alarming example of that trend. The region does not have institutions equivalent to Nato or the European Union to underpin regional security. Instead, it relies upon a criss-crossing set of bilateral treaties. France and Britain play minor roles. It is the United States that pulls all the threads together.

In that role, it is vital the US should not escalate the tension. Indeed, its intervention, by sending the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the area may have already achieved that, by deflecting China's anger. Li Peng yesterday directed his warnings at the US, while adopting a more conciliatory tone towards Taiwan itself.

Washington must not allow China to intimidate Taiwan at will, for that would signal to the other states in the region that they too might become vulnerable to Chinese aggression and may not be able to count on the support of the United States. The best way to do that is to calmly and openly tell the Chinese leadership when and where the Nimitz will sail and to make clear it will pass through the international waters of the straits.