It is not hard to see why even China's hardline generals do not wish to see any accidents which might turn the Taiwan Strait war games into the real thing. Circling above the northern end of the strait is the United States seventh fleet's Independence battleship task force. That is led by a massive aircraft-carrier manned by about 5,000 servicemen and holding more than 50 state-of-the-art aircraft, including FA-18 Hornet strike planes, F-14 Tomcat fighters and A-6 Intruder fighters. Protecting the carrier is the destroyer Hewitt, the frigate McClusky, and the cruisers O'Brien and Bunker Hill. And a nuclear submarine. Adding lethal missile power to the task force are over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Try as it might to upgrade its ageing air-force with Russian SU-class fighter planes, or its navy with a huge domestic building programme, China knows that the one American task force alone is probably enough to bury its entire navy and much of its air-force. But just so Beijing is under no illusions of what might happen in the event of hostilities, President Clinton agreed to Defence Secretary William Perry's advice last week to dispatch a second task force with as much deadly firepower as the first. That battle-group, led by the aircraft-carrier Nimitz, is due to arrive in the area around the time China's exercises cease next week - and will almost certainly make a conspicuous passage through the international waters of the strait while Taiwan goes to the polls later this month. Analysts agree that at no time since the US was deep in the mire of the Vietnam War has such a fearsome assembly of American naval power been in operation in East Asia. The administration hopes that its military response to China's sabre-rattling will shore up President Bill Clinton's credentials in this election year; will send a message that China has gone far enough; and although it will not prevent Beijing mounting a semi-blockade of the island republic, it will achieve its ultimate aim of ensuring that no shots will need to be fired in earnest. It has also achieved something that has for so long eluded it - total, bipartisan backing in Congress for its stand on this Taiwan-related matter. About the only matter puzzling analysts is why Mr Perry even considered a second battle-group necessary - given that the consensus in Washington is that neither of them are likely to be engaged in combat. What it will provide operationally, however, is a presence at either end of the strait, and round-the-clock readiness. Banning Garrett of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies cites several layers of strategy in the surprisingly robust US response. 'This is mainly a show of US determination that we have interests here and want to maintain freedom of navigation,' he said. A second result of the action, added Dr Garrett, is that it shows China and the rest of the region that 'the US is not pulling out of China, and still wields tremendous influence in the region'. A Pentagon source said that while Mr Clinton made the correct response, he was also catering to domestic politics as much as the need to answer China's posturing. 'He cannot appear to be soft on China right now,' he said. But one problem that will now beset Washington's strategists is that having rolled out its hardware to such dramatic effect, the US will not be able to shrink from using it, and can no longer shelter behind its long-term policy of 'deliberate ambiguity', which was designed not only to dissuade Beijing from the use of force, but also to prevent Taipei from assuming it could rely on Washington's protection. 'China has forced America into a position which is no longer to China's advantage. It is the fact that Beijing has pushed us over the edge which is the tragedy,' said Dr Garrett. Now that the US has made it clear in all but words that it has decided it would defend Taiwan with military force, that is a stance which stands up to international scrutiny if Beijing makes the first aggressive move. But if a post-election Taiwan then moves on to declare independence, Washington's position is far more problematic. As Stanley Roth, former CIA adviser on Asia, pointed out this week, defending Taiwan under such circumstances would amount to 'intervening in a 50-year-old Chinese civil war'. On the other hand, the position of Congress - a key player in this drama - is that Taiwan's move from military dictatorship to fully-fledged democracy has totally changed the equation, and consigned the old Cold War China policy to the political dustbin. Not everyone in Washington believes that the current chapter has been closed with the arrival of the US ships. Even though China cannot possibly respond with an attack on US forces, America's military move may push President Jiang Zemin into saving face by going even further than so far. According to the Pentagon official, that could mean two worrying developments: either an extension of Beijing's exercises past the March 20 target date, or much worse, the taking by force of one of the sparsely-populated Taiwanese islands closest to the mainland.