IN his seminal treatise on military strategy, ''The Art of War,'' ancient Chinese scholar Sun Tzu wrote that the best commander is one who achieves victory without actually fighting a battle.
More than 1,600 years later, China's Communist leaders are trying to adhere to their forebears dictum in a mounting confrontation with Taiwan.
By firing missiles near the island and making other provocative gestures, Beijing apparently seeks to halt what it regards as a drive by Taiwan toward declaring official independence and to bully it into reunification.
But, Beijing also vows to use force if necessary and, in recent days, has been massing ships, aircraft, and an estimated 150,000 troops in coastal Fujian Province near Taiwan. US officials don't believe the forces are for an assault, but for major war games aimed at scaring off votes for Taiwan's assertive president, Lee Teng-hui, the favorite in its first democratic presidential election on March 23.
Still, US military and independent analysts are concerned and almost daily weigh the odds that the war games could be a cover for an invasion of Taiwan.
The overwhelming conclusion so far: Not only is an assault unlikely, but China's chance of success without unacceptably huge losses and uncertain political and economic consequences is dim at best.
''We do not believe they [the Chinese] have the capability to conduct amphibious operations of the nature that would be necessary to invade Taiwan,'' asserts Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A report published this week by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington think tank, says it is doubtful China will acquire the capability to assault Taiwan for at least a decade. The report examined Chinese and Taiwanese military strengths, budgets, hardware, and strategies. It found that ''neither the focus of Chinese [weapons] acquisition priorities nor its resource base suggests that China will have the capability to conduct such an operation, at an acceptable cost, now or by 2005.''
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