Despite the saber rattling, however, neither Taiwan nor Washington believes any Chinese military action is imminent because even mere martial gestures carry political risks for Beijing. For instance, in 1996, when the Chinese fired missiles near Taiwan, the U.S. sent two naval battle groups into the area to signal its readiness to come to Taiwan’s aid. "It’s humiliating for the Chinese when they’re forced to back down in the face of U.S. military power," says Dowell. "They’re very aware of the need to avoid making huge threats from which they later have to back down." In the future, though, don't expect Beijing to cease from periodically testing U.S. resolve to get involved in the 50-year-old conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
One thing the U.S. learned from Saddam Hussein: When the other guy rattles his saber, you’ve got rattle yours right back. And so the White House made clear Friday that any Chinese military action against Taiwan would bring retaliation from the U.S., following reports that Beijing had warned Washington that China might "punish" Taiwan over its leader’s demand for an end to the "One China" policy, which maintains that democratic Taiwan and the communist mainland are one nation that will eventually be reunified. "The U.S. is being very careful not to repeat the mistake that preceded the 1991 Gulf War, when Washington failed to make clear to Saddam Hussein that it would not tolerate Iraq's invading Kuwait," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "This time they want to leave no room for doubt that they would respond if China attacks."