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China’s relations with the United States are at their lowest point since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996. Beijing has a lengthening list of grievances against Washington: harsh criticism in the State Department’s annual human-rights report and the prospect of a resolution censoring Chinese behavior at the annual United Nations human-rights meeting coming up soon in Geneva; claims that China is stealing U.S. nuclear secrets; the cancellation of the sale of a communications satellite to a Chinese-led consortium; lack of progress in talks for admission into the World Trade Organization. But the most important complaint against the U.S. concerns Washington’s pursuit of a theater missile defense program and the Clinton administration’s apparent willingness to share that technology with Taiwan.

In recent weeks, senior Chinese officials have warned that extending the TMD shield to the island would be “the last straw” in the deteriorating relationship, and would have serious consequences. One official obliquely noted that the Chinese people “would be willing to die” to protect the country’s dignity and sovereignty. The Chinese response is genuine: China’s indivisibility, and the fact that Taiwan is considered an integral part of the nation, is perhaps the only topic upon which all Chinese agree. But the existence of such fears does not make Beijing’s over-reaction correct. The deployment of TMD is by no means assured, nor is its extension to Taiwan. If the Chinese want to minimize the chances of both, there are far more constructive policies they can adopt. Threats are the worst possible approach.

China fears TMD since it threatens to neutralize its nuclear arsenal, the only weapon in the Chinese armory that its Asian neighbors do not possess. Chinese strategists also worry that the U.S. is turning again to the Reagan-era strategy that bankrupted the Soviet Union: using the prospect of a Star Wars-style missile defense system to force China to spend itself into ruin.

China is right about one thing, however. Within Asia, TMD deployment would shift the strategic balance. But TMD is a defensive system. If it worked — a big if — TMD would eliminate the threat of nuclear blackmail, which is the strategy implicit in the Chinese complaint. It is hard to see how that is a bad thing.

While Beijing’s blasts at Japan over the possibility of this country’s remilitarization are intended to keep the Tokyo government on the defensive, they do reflect real concern about Japanese intentions. Nonetheless, there are better ways to heal historical wounds and build a healthier relationship than half-veiled threats.

The extension of TMD to Taiwan is another matter. Beijing fears that the nuclear shield will encourage the Taiwanese to push for independence. At the same time, the Chinese worry that TMD will force the U.S. and Taiwan to better integrate their defense forces and, in effect, resume the joint defense arrangement that ended in 1979 when Washington and Beijing normalized relations. The two arguments do not fit together, however. The U.S. has made it clear that while it does not want China to use force against the province, it also abides by the one-China principle and will not support independence moves by the Taipei government. If TMD better integrates the two countries’ militaries, then the U.S. should have even more leverage for keeping the Taiwanese in line.

There is little hope that such arguments will convince officials in Beijing. History, institutional interests and personal political stakes oblige many Chinese to view TMD as a threat. Even if that is so, there are more effective means of countering the prospect of the system’s deployment. The most obvious one is lowering threat perceptions in the region. That requires an end to self-serving talk about “renewed Japanese militarism.” Second, the Beijing government could do more to get North Korea to rein in its ballistic missile program. Last summer’s launch of a three-stage missile transformed Japanese thinking about missile defenses and pushed the program forward here.

Finally, China could do considerably more to change the way it is perceived in the region. The news of a missile buildup across the strait from Taiwan and the warnings delivered in recent days all underscore concerns about Beijing’s intentions. No “peace-loving country” need resort so quickly to threats of war.

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