Living with the dragon

December 07, 2003

FOR THE United States, China now gives new meaning to the old saw: Be careful what you wish for. Or more specifically, as Napoleon is widely quoted: "Let China sleep. For when she awakes, the world will tremble."

China's integration into the world political and economic order was a distant vision when President Richard Nixon pried open its doors in 1972. But decades of prodding by the United States to open and reform China has produced results unimaginable 30 years ago: China now is one of the main engines of world growth, emerging as Asia's great power, and both a strategic rival and deeply wedded partner with the United States.

So when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pays a state visit in Washington on Tuesday - the first by the newest set of Chinese leaders - the most pressing concerns will be Taiwan, terrorism and trade, but the overriding issue for both countries is managing each other.

In a sense, the relationship, though increasingly complex, has never been better. Both nations need stability in Asia; they're married economically. At the same time, both spar for dominance in the region, previously a U.S. sphere, and the more than $100 billion U.S. trade deficit with China is fodder for frictions, real and trumped up.

Trade is just part of the growing web of intertwined interests, and this week it's apt to take a back seat to Taiwan's recent and risky movement toward revising its constitution and holding a referendum on declaring genuine independence.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's provocative moves to alter the island's 54-year standoff with the mainland are certainly a re-election campaign appeal to rising Taiwanese nationalism. But they are also a high-stakes, uncertain bet that Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics provides a rare opening for independence without a military attack from across the Strait of Taiwan.

World opinion notwithstanding, China has responded with growing military threats. And it has been beseeching the United States to remind Taiwan that it has long supported "one China," determined peacefully by both sides of the strait, and doesn't support Taiwanese independence. Look for President Bush to do at least that.

But China's help in defusing the North Korean nuclear threat is so crucial to the United States that reportedly some in the Bush administration are lobbying to provide China even more: an unprecedented statement of active opposition to Taiwanese independence and a warning that U.S. military assistance to Taiwan would be conditioned on the island not provoking the mainland.

Given Taiwan's stirring evolution into a vibrant democracy in recent years and Mr. Bush's willingness to invade other nations in the name of such freedoms, that fundamental shift in American policy would be an untenable inconsistency and a potentially disastrous invitation for Chinese military action. That such an ill-advised softening of the United States' long-term commitment to Taiwan is even now a possibility speaks to the accelerating contradictions in accommodating the arrival of China as a world economic and political power.

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