How long will the United States continue to believe that it should help China to get rich by keeping American markets open? That’s the key question now that the 24 servicemen and -women from the downed U.S. surveillance aircraft have been allowed to return home. Never before has America allowed a potentially hostile rising power with an authoritarian government to run up a huge trade surplus that helps it build the sinews of war. If the U.S. comes to believe that China will never become a democracy, it is likely to opt for containment.

But it is too soon to conclude that China will remain authoritarian. Nor, in current circumstances, would America’s regional allies support containment, which would include economic embargo and thus be tantamount to a declaration of war. For now, it remains in America’s interest to draw China further into the global economy because there is a good chance that market forces will act as solvents of tyranny. Unlike in Pyongyang, moderates do exist in Beijing’s government, which is far from monolithic.

But America must underpin its policies with robust deterrence in case “engagement” fails. The Clinton administration saw engagement as an end in itself and criticized Americans who opposed it as isolationists. That puffed up the Chinese, who are always prone to see themselves as the center of the universe. We saw the consequences in the truculent behavior of Chinese diplomats last week and their insistence that the U.S. was at fault, even before any investigation had been made. Throughout its modern history, China has been preyed upon by others, but it has often been the architect of its own misfortunes.

America was not one of those who preyed on China when it was weak. To the contrary, it fought a lonely battle to protect what remained of China’s sovereignty from the depredations of others. The American vision for China has long been as a partner across the Pacific. China is on the U.N. Security Council today because U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt offered China membership in his proposed great-power condominium, much to the bemusement of Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. But from 1949 onward, China’s communist revolution, alliance with the Soviet Union and participation in the Korean War all put an end to Roosevelt’s hopes for China.

That vision began to resurface in the early 1970s, with U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China. Beijing, disillusioned with Moscow, entered into an alignment with the U.S., which did much to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, Deng Xiaoping, China’s strongman, put China on a path intended to avoid Moscow’s mistakes. Deng sought the benefits of the market, which led to an economic as well as diplomatic opening to the U.S. Yet he was determined to retain Leninist control, as demonstrated by his willingness to kill hundreds of unarmed protesters in the streets of his nation’s capital in 1989.

The Taiwan issue was set aside during the Sino-U.S. honeymoon but not resolved. China never abandoned its insistence that Taiwan was a rebel province that China had the right to bring to heel, by force if necessary. Even though the U.S. abrogated its security commitments to Taiwan when it recognized China in 1978, America never accepted that China had the right to use force to reintegrate Taiwan. Congress underlined the point by means of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

And the issue was always wider than just Taiwan. It was a question of regional security, because if China were to succeed in using force or threats against Taiwan, no one would feel safe, including Japan. Inevitably, once the Soviet Union collapsed, the Sino-U.S. alliance of convenience dissolved along with the common enemy. Then the Taiwan issue resurfaced, and with a new twist. Now Taiwan had become a democracy. As a democracy, it has a tighter grip on American interests.

So it was not surprising that the first clash of strategic interest between China and the Clinton administration occurred over Taiwan. In 1996, China sought to intimidate Taiwan when the latter held its first presidential elections. Its way of doing this was to fire missiles in the direction of Taiwan’s ports. The Clinton administration responded by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait.

Nor it is surprising that the first clash between China and the new Bush administration has focused on the South China Sea. China, no longer pinned down on its land frontiers, is pointing south and east strategically, toward its maritime frontiers in the East and South China Seas.

Taiwan and the archipelagoes of the South China Sea are vital links in the “first island chain” that runs down the East Asian littoral. Fueled by a drive for power and resources, China has extensive territorial claims in these waters, underpinned by a cynical manipulation of international law. We heard a lot about China’s insistence on its sovereignty last week, yet China is building a fortified base on Mischief Reef, which is well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

In relation to both Taiwan and the South China Sea, problems between China and the U.S. are manifestations of a wider collision of strategic interest, which is America’s refusal to grant China what it so ardently seeks — a free hand in East Asia.

Because of the maritime basis of its own security, the U.S. cannot allow any potentially hostile power to dominate the western shore of the Pacific Ocean. It was a similar clash of strategic interest that ultimately led to war between the U.S. and Japan in 1941. Differences between the U.S. and China have their roots in a collision of strategic interest. They cannot be resolved by diplomatic means because they do not arise from misunderstanding.

Beijing’s truculent behavior last week may have guaranteed America’s eventual sale of the advanced Aegis missile defense system to Taiwan — the outcome that China least wants. There are a raft of other issues in play, and tensions are likely to rise sharply.

Still, it’s premature to give up on Roosevelt’s hopes for China, because that vision is still in America’s best interests. China should be drawn further into the sticky web of capitalism since it is simply too big to become another Singapore, which has been able to secure the benefits of the market while retaining political control.

But China will be entitled to its place at the top table only if it abjures the use of force and threats in pursuit of its interests. That requires convincing the hardliners in Beijing that the costs of war would outweigh any possible benefit. The Bush team, by its deft handling of its first foreign-policy test, shows it is on the right path.

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