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The China syndrome

AS PRESIDENT Bush readies his chopsticks to dine with President Hu Jintao tomorrow, he might ponder whether the rise of China means the eclipse of the United States.

Some Americans see China pushing us aside. Some even grasp at China's rise as a stick to beat the Bush administration. Any rise with the potential to take President Bush down a peg or two is maximized by those for whom Bush's America would not be their first choice as the world's sole superpower. Take a deep breath. The US economy is seven times the size of China's and the Japanese economy is three times China's. Not least, China is a Leninist regime -- the kind that mostly went up in a puff of smoke 15 years ago.

None of this is to deny that China's economy is expanding rapidly, with annual GDP growth of 8 to 9 percent, according to official figures. The global consequences of this are clear, as China seeks new markets and sucks in increased imports. At a broader level, Beijing expands its military, spurs nationalist spirit, and enjoys growing diplomatic clout well beyond Asia.

China's foreign policy seeks to maximize stability at home (for example, by keeping the status quo across Xinjiang's borders with Central Asia) and sustain China's impressive economic growth (for example, by safeguarding the huge US market). A third goal is to maintain peace in China's complicated geographic situation with no less than 14 abutting neighbors. So far so good. This is a prudent foreign policy.

But China also has two dubious goals. One is to replace the United States as the chief source of influence in East Asia. Hence Chinese efforts to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States and Chinese whispers in Australian ears that Canberra would be better off looking only to Asia and not across the Pacific. The other is to ''regain" territories that Beijing feels fall within its sovereignty. These include not only Taiwan but a large number of islands east and south of China and, eventually, portions of the Russian Far East to which Beijing has laid territorial claims in the past.

Whether Beijing can achieve these goals depends on how long its rigid political system can survive, and on the reaction of other powers to China's ambitions. A middle-class push for property rights, rural discontent, increased use of the Internet, huge numbers of unemployed, and a suddenly aging population bringing financial and social strains all dramatize the contradictions inherent in ''market Leninism." Traveling one road in economics and another in politics does not make for a settled destination.

China's economy may continue to grow at its present rate. Or China may retain its Leninist party state. But it can hardly do both. Either the economic or the political logic will soon gain the upper hand.

The successful rise of a new No. 1 entails not only ambition on the part of that rising power and capacity to fulfill the functions of No. 1, but also -- crucially -- acquiescence by other affected powers.

This last condition is extremely unlikely to be fulfilled. The United States will not allow an authoritarian China to become the new world leader and has allies to call on. Japan's new assertiveness and India's weight are major factors. And should Beijing seek to pursue a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine in Asia, Washington could also count on Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam for balancing weight.

American interests in Asia lie, as they have for the past century, in keeping China and Japan in balance, and not allowing either one to forge ahead of the other. Equally, a Japan that saw China eclipse the United States, its major ally whose primacy in East Asia explains six decades of Japanese restraint, would surely challenge China.

US-China policy should blend full engagement with preserving an equilibrium in East Asia that discourages Beijing from expansionism. No contradiction exists between these twin stances. There are two Chinas, after all. A command economy that sags and a free economy that soars. A Communist Party that scratches for a raison d'etre and 1.3 billion individuals with private agendas. Being wary of authoritarian China yet engaging with emerging China is a reasonable dualism.

The expansionist claims of Beijing are unique among today's powers. But the Chinese regime is a rational dictatorship that has, for the past quarter century, been patient in fulfilling its goals. It surely realizes that others -- the United States, Japan, Russia, and India -- have a variety of reasons for denying China the opportunity to be a 21st century Middle Kingdom. If Beijing continues to be faced with a countervailing equilibrium that keeps the peace in East Asia, it will probably act prudently.

In Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, and Chongqing, on two recent visits, I found less talk of China being near to eclipsing the United States than I do on US campuses and in the US media. Overall, China may not be the new colossus it appears to its self-made foes or to distant lotus-eaters. A Leninist-ruled Chinese superpower eclipsing the United States is not on the horizon.

Ross Terrill is an associate in research at Harvard University's Asia Center and author of, most recently, ''The New Chinese Empire."

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