Relations with China must stress cooperation, not fear

Two Chinese warships are in Everett because relations have improved so much over the past year. It is another of the good times in U.S.-China relations. Memories of the 1999 U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Yugoslavia have faded. China rode out the election of a new president in Taiwan without completely losing its cool.

For the moment, everything is fine. And friendship is being celebrated, both among professional military personnel on the docks of Everett as well as by diplomats in Beijing and Washington, D.C.

How long will the picture stay so cheery? The past quarter century of generally good ties between two great nations argues for optimism. But there is also reason for caution.

The Chinese regime remains authoritarian, sometimes brutally so. In May, the liberal New Republic magazine aptly described Beijing as "an insular, paranoid government filled with resentment toward the West and entitlement toward its neighbors." Paranoid? Any discussion with Chinese foreign ministry officials emphasizes that there have been mistakes made in dealings between our two countries. All the mistakes, however, have been made by — America.

While nationalism may have lost its allure in much of the world, it’s booming in China. As the inheritor of a great civilization, China has a legitimate desire to see itself as a leading world power. And the history of China’s mistreatment by Western powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries remains a legitimate cause for resentment. But, with few ways to rally the public around the ruling Communist Party, Chinese leaders find it convenient at times to stir the flames of nationalism.

Still, the United States has little reason — other than its own political playing with emotions — to regard China as a serious threat, at least for the present. China is not in the same class as this country, militarily or economically. And despite the embarrassing behavior of the U.S. government in the Wen Ho Lee nuclear technology case, China does not appear intent on serious military rivalry.

Indeed, there are good reasons for the United States and China to cooperate and maintain productive relations. There is a history of deep respect between the two nations that, at least on the level of public opinion, seems strong enough to survive inevitable ups and downs in diplomatic relations. In many ways, our national interests, in Asia and globally, line up well. We both want peace on the Korean Peninsula, which lies next to China. Most importantly, both countries have an overriding interest in the prosperity and opportunities for progress that only peace can offer.

While China has disputes with a number of its neighbors, none is more important to China than Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province. It’s a surprisingly emotional issue. Just before the inauguration of Taiwan’s new president in May, a lunch between visiting American journalists and a deputy mayor of Shanghai turned tense. The city official, the father of a pre-teen boy, suggested heatedly that war might be preferable to the dishonor of allowing Taiwan to make any declaration of independence.

Taiwan, with its impressive development as a democracy, deserves American support, including enough weapons for Beijing to know that peace is the only plausible route to reunification. Oddly, though, the road to peaceful reunification may run right through Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese control just three years ago. Chinese officials point to the maintenance of freedom and the promotion of democracy in Hong Kong as ways to show Taiwan what it could expect under reunification.

Even Beijing’s most intelligent critics tend to agree. Martin Lee, a great human rights advocate and one of Hong Kong’s elected legislators, sees hope for preservation of Hong Kong’s freedoms in Beijing’s need to impress Taiwan. He is optimistic, moreover, that China and Taiwan can address their questions peacefully.

If that’s the case, a strong United States and a growing China ought to be able to continue dealing with each other reasonably well in the years ahead. Caution and strength, however, will be vital ingredients in maintaining America’s security and ability to deal peacefully with China.

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