LOS ANGELES — How many of you out there would just love to see Colin Powell back in the saddle as U.S. secretary of state? Or, better yet, as secretary of defense, giving the boot to his arch-nemesis — the war-prone Donald Rumsfeld?

Surely this delicious thought occurred to those who admired the former secretary of state’s recent speech in Asia that scoffed at the idea that China was anything approaching a serious military threat to the United States. That comment from our most respected military man came on the heels of a grim lecture by Rumsfeld, in Singapore of all places, that more or less painted China as the second coming of the late Soviet Union and Darth Vader.

At the same time, the ever-sane Powell, a former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, an architect of the successful 1991 U.S. air war against the Saddam Hussein regime, and a soft-spoken skeptic of the 2003 U.S. ground invasion of Iraq, didn’t go into denial about the Chinese military buildup. The career soldier put the mainland’s ambitions in realistic contexts: to maintain a credible military deterrent against the possibility of formal Taiwan independence, and to underscore its inevitable rise as an important power.

Here are a few relevant facts. China’s military expenditures are far less than that of the U.S., not only in gross amount but also in proportion to its national economic product. It is not the Communist Chinese government in Beijing, after all, that ever invaded Taiwan: In a sense, it was the rightwing nationalistic losers of the Chinese civil war who did so in 1949.

It was not the Chinese that invaded Hong Kong: In a sense, it was colonial Britain that did so in the 1840s, plucking the fruit of its Opium War. And it was not China that asked the U.N. Security Council for permission to invade a far-off country two years ago. That was the U.S., and when it didn’t get its way from the United Nations, the U.S. invaded anyhow.

This is not to say that China is the second coming of Costa Rica. Its encrusted political system can barely manage all the turmoil on the mainland. Recent Western news reports have been aflutter with video footage of rural instability in a village just 100 km from Beijing. Given the government’s generally effective clampdown on negative news of this sort, one can only guess at the true extent of social unrest in China.

But on this point Powell had this to say: With 1.3 billion mouths to feed, it’s a darn good thing that China’s economy continues on the upswing. A disintegrating China would make North Korea’s malnutrition and starvation problem look like a minor cult’s fast. Those in the West who wish the worst for China should consider whether the worst really would be in the West’s best interests.

China’s government, it is true, can sometimes be extremely annoying. Its relationship with neighboring Japan, with whom Beijing nurtures a love-hate relationship, is an example. Beijing loves Japanese economic investment on the mainland while hating its domestic politics. When it comes to the Japanese, at least, Beijing appears to suspend its oft-proclaimed, angelic policy of observing noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.

In general, though, such negativity — about one of the world’s leading democracies, second leading economy and top-tier U.S. ally — is counterproductive. The Hu Jintao government needs to keep its nose right up against the economic grindstone, as the sympathetic Powell was suggesting, and keep feeding those 1.3 billion mouths if it hopes to keep those people from mouthing off (or worse) about government competence. Over the long run, the grandstanding nationalism of the anti-Japan variety can only prove to be a weak diet with which to sustain a government’s legitimacy.

Japan itself, to be sure, can seem almost irrationally complicit in the anti-Japan game. Take the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine, which celebrates the memory not only of certifiable war heroes but convicted war criminals, too. Were Japan’s past barbaric deportment in Asia as an occupying power not such a pan-Asian issue, the visits of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the shrine would not themselves be such an easy target.

The better course for Koizumi, who must stand down as prime minister next year anyway, would be to follow the enlightened and prudent pathway of Japan’s legendary Yasuhiro Nakasone. While in office, this prime minister of the 1980s stopped visiting the shrine altogether, wisely concluding that too many people in Asia would misinterpret his gesture of respect for Japan’s heroic dead as a gesture of contempt for everyone else.

Koizumi claims that his shrine visits occur in the context of his status as a private citizen. Sorry, Junichiro — you’re no private citizen. Why continue to hand Japan’s often insincere grandstanding enemies such a colossal propaganda gift? Koizumi is very smart, but his stand is very dumb. The prime minister ought to telephone the wise Powell for some advice. Colin gets it.

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