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Respecting China

ONE THOUSAND years before Pericles and the golden age of Athens, the Chinese were weaving silk, casting in bronze, and carving objects of beauty out of jade. Some of the world's greatest poetry was written in China when Alexander the Great was a toddler. In 240 BC, Chinese astronomers noted the passage of Halley's Comet, something that would not be done in the West for another millennium.

Thus I was bemused by Donald Rumsfeld's recent comments that China was a country ''we hope and pray enters the civilized world in an orderly way."

A Pentagon spokesman, in a role similar to the fellow who follows the circus elephant with a shovel, jumped in quickly to explain that the secretary of defense did not mean to suggest that China was not a civilized country, only that it had been an inward-looking country that was now emerging as a global actor. True enough, but increasingly, it seems, ''civilized" actors are those who play roles written for them by the Bush administration.

It was the expansion of China's military power that prompted Rumsfeld's remark. The Chinese military budget has doubled in recent years. The Chinese Navy is pushing out from coastal waters into the blue oceans. It may, Rumsfeld told Congress, overtake the US Navy in a decade.

Rumsfeld is paid to concern himself with such matters. A shift in the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait would be destabilizing, and this is an era in which the US Navy will cease to grow, and may shrink, due to the all-consuming expense of Rumsfeld's war in Iraq.

But China is too big for the Bush administration to bully. A nuclear power and a permanent member of the Security Council, China can both defend itself and hinder many things the United States would like to do. Europe may soon end a long-term arms embargo to China, a move that the Bush administration opposes.

At the moment, the United States is desperate to get China's help in rescuing the Bush administration's failed policies towards North Korea -- a policy that Harvard's Graham Allison calls ''neither carrot nor stick." Although China is not thrilled to see a nuclear-powered North Korea, it is deeply suspicious of the US ''axis of evil" policies and does not wish to destabilize North Korea with sanctions at America's bidding.

The modern era of Sino-American relationships began when President Nixon went to China and reversed a generation of hostility. Nixon did not let China's dictatorial ways stand in the way of a move that obviously benefited the United States. This administration, however, seems to take the view expressed by Vice President Cheney that the United States doesn't ''negotiate with evil; we defeat it." Therefore we won't talk to North Korea.

The Bush administration came to power with a belligerent attitude towards China. Conservatives said China would no longer be coddled and should be treated as a dangerous rival.

But after 9/11, Beijing immediately offered its support in the war against terrorists, and one of the best aspects of Bush's post-9/11 policies was that unnecessary quarrels with China were put aside.

Now, in George W. Bush's second term, we have Donald Rumsfeld making ill-considered remarks about China, a country he soon hopes to visit.

And when CIA Director Porter Goss recently warned Congress of China's growing military power, he left out any conciliatory remarks about China's help against terrorism, its help with North Korea, and its continuing use of peaceful economic means to extend its influence -- remarks that always used to accompany CIA briefs about growing Chinese military might.

There are three truths about China's future: Nothing is going to stand in the way of China becoming a world economic power. China's military power will also grow expediently in the Western Pacific and perhaps beyond. And China is in a period of transition, which Rumsfeld recognizes.

The United States can either recognize these truths and treat China with respect and understanding during this transition, helping to move China toward democracy, or it can confront China -- not a wise decision for the long run and ludicrous in the short run since Iraq has taken so many cards out of America's hand.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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