LEADING ARTICLE: Resisting the roar of the dragon

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When the world's two greatest military powers manoeuvre menacingly in a narrow stretch of sea around a disputed island only the foolhardy would argue that there was nothing to be worried about.Every sensible analysis suggests that Peking will rattle its missiles at Taiwan but that it will not risk a conflict.

However, this is not a moment for the West to rest on its laurels. Indeed, it is vital that it responds to China's bullying threats by laying down its own, measured marker of how it will react. For what is at stake in this escalating war of words, gestures and threats is not only the outcome of Taiwan's forthcoming elections but the terms under which China will exert its growing power in Asia, after the demise of its ageing leader Deng Xiaoping.

The attacks on Taiwan seem inseparable from the power struggle over the succession to Deng. For thousands of years Chinese leaders have stood, and sometimes fallen, on their ability to uphold the "Unity of the Motherland". With Deng Xiaoping clinging to life but not quite to power, the supreme- leader-in-waiting, President Jiang Zemin, is understandably anxious not to show any sign of weakness towards the notion of an independent Taiwan. He has to contend with, and propitiate, ageing generals, flexing their ageing muscles and ageing attitudes.

The forthcoming first open presidential elections, which will confirm the mandate of Lee Teng-hui, who is formally committed to independence, appears to have infuriated the Chinese. As we have seen in Hong Kong, China regards democracy as an infectious disorder best kept far from its borders. Meanwhile, Mr Lee's campaign for a Taiwanese seat at the UN is calculated to annoy Peking.

In the context of this vicious quarrel between potentially volatile neighbours the Clinton administration was right to strengthen the US naval presence in the area. It may also diplomatically remind China that the West has no "selfish" interests in Taiwan and will not encourage a desire for independence, yet it could not stand by if Taiwan were attacked. Taiwan may not be recognised as a separate state but this warmongering is not an issue internal to China. Taiwan is vulnerable precisely because it is caught in that limbo land short of full statehood. It is convenient for the West that it should be kept there, for that eases Western trade with China. In return, Taiwan has every right to expect our support.

Most importantly, with Western investment running at pounds 65m a day, the West must remind China that war and instability could seriously hamper investment. The days are gone when Peking could behave like a surly dragon, occasionally popping its head out of a cave of self-imposed isolation to roar defiance. The West must not escalate the tension by intervening directly, but it must make its presence felt for as long as China continues to threaten.