What if China exploded economically in a miracle like South Korea's while developing weaponry full blast and remaining defiantly Communist?
There is no what-if about it. That is what is going on.
China is the most important nation in the world for the U.S. The old dream of 400 million customers, now a billion-two, is coming true. Only the wrong way. The trade balance is in China's favor.
China is growing like crazy, arming steadily and brooking no dissent to the communism that, in the economic sphere, it does not practice.
China is too important for the U.S. to grandstand about. To deny China most-favored-nation trading status because it locked up dissidents would be strange. The U.S. has traded with country after country that locked up dissidents.
China has too large a capacity for doing harm internationally not to be taken seriously. It can threaten Japan with nuclear destruction. It can flood world markets with goods. It can enrich U.S. capitalism, or give the contracts to South Korea. It can sell missiles and, if it wants, nuclear technology to every rogue country.
L Bill Clinton needs China more than China needs Bill Clinton.
He needs it not to sell missiles to just anyone who will pay, like Iran. He needs it not to reignite the nuclear-weapons race, which it is doing. He needs it not to support the Khmer Rouge into destroying Cambodia again. He needs it not to make war with Russia, with Japan, with Taiwan, with Vietnam.
Foreign policy is not about feeling good. It is about advancing U.S. national interests, particularly the interest in a peaceful and stable world. It is an interest best stated negatively, in seeing that terrible things do not happen.
Americans don't have to like Beijing's treatment of its own
citizens. Americans don't have to believe that communism can survive citizen Deng Xiaoping, who is 89 and rumored to be failing.
But the U.S. government ought to realize that its ability to influence China's conduct is limited, and ought to be directed at China's international conduct.
The administration applied sanctions on high-technology sales because China is shipping M-11 missile technology to Pakistan in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime. The U.S. wants greater market access in China. It wants China to stop allowing entrepreneurs to pirate CDs and other intellectual property.
So it is no wonder that top billing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Seattle was yesterday's bilateral hour between President Clinton and Jiang Zemin.
Mr. Jiang has been general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party four years, president or head of state eight months, and chairman of the military commission. That should mean he is the boss, the Mao of this generation. In time, it may be so. Mr. Jiang is only 67.
Actually, he is said to be on thin ice with the generals, who are uncomfortable with sucking up to the United States. He is Deng Xiaoping's last chosen heir, but his future after Mr. Deng is in doubt.
It was never true that dictatorships and private-enterprise economies don't mix. Hitler and Mussolini mixed them. South Korea and Taiwan did. Indonesia and Thailand are. Add China to the list.
What is true is that creation of a business class in time creates demands for intellectual freedom and participatory government. Capitalism breeds democracy, not the reverse. So it seems likely that China will follow Taiwan and South Korea on the road to
democracy after Mr. Deng dies. Mr. Jiang could lead such a transformation, or be its victim.
The official line is that nothing will change, that China will remain "united" (Communist) in pursuit of a more open country and market economy. Whatever happens politically, China is likely to remain on its freer market course.
China is capable of becoming once again Russia's ally or Russia's enemy, America's partner or America's adversary. Capable of raising hell in territorial ocean disputes, capable of allowing Tibetan culture to flourish or crushing it.
China is up for grabs. For Mr. Clinton to play it for domestic applause would be to miss the grab.
Creating a stable, trusting and mutually profitable relation with China today is the biggest imperative in U.S. foreign policy. Especially if Mr. Clinton means to keep the decks clear for priorities in domestic policy.
F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.