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Avoiding Cold War with China could be tricky

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BEIJING — "Michael, Jeffrey, look here," says a camera-waving American. An incandescent flash fires, and a set of smiling U.S. executives in polo shirts get their photos snapped outside one of Beijing's better Italian restaurants.

If the United States is in a "standoff" with China, these U.S. businessmen aren't affected. "It's happening at such a high level of government, we don't follow it," says Matthew Roddy, here for a marketing seminar.

Three weeks after a midair crash over the South China Sea, the full implication of current U.S.-China tensions — now on several fronts — is still uncertain. Is this a brief, uncomfortable post-Cold War standoff? Or, is it the first instance of a new Cold War standoff — one between two states that share $115 billion in trade and investment?

U.S. F-15 jets are involved in "training exercises" off Okinawa, to possibly accompany future U.S. surveillance flights along China's coast. Chinese President Jiang Zemin stated last weekend that China won't concede on "territorial integrity" — and has called again for U.S. surveillance missions to stop.

The U.S. Taiwan arms-sales decision, a new U.S. travel warning following the arrests here of five U.S.-based Chinese scholars (two are U.S. citizens) and the granting of Japanese and U.S. visas to former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui add to tensions.

Experts here see Beijing's decisions on these issues in the context of a "rising China" — a state that sees its larger role not just as the preeminent power in Asia but as the world's other superpower.

For the first time in its modern history, China has secure borders and doesn't feel threatened by neighbors. Moreover, unlike Europe, which after World War II adopted a set of interwoven systems of alliances as a means of checks and balances, Asia has no significant security alliances other than that offered by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. China conducts its foreign policy with its 14 neighbors on a bilateral basis.

"The Chinese dominate their borders for the first time in 150 years," says Robert Ross of Harvard University's Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research. "This is a very enviable strategic situation for China. All that is missing is a coastal defense and Taiwan."

China's situation comes after a century of humiliation and frustration. Sixty years ago, China was invaded and occupied by the Japanese. Fifty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers lost their lives in the Korean War. In the 1970s, China lost out in various adventures it took on the Soviet border and in Southeast Asia. Yet today, other than the U.S. fleet, China sees no major external threat — except for a U.S. policy that could undermine its "great power" sovereignty.

"The only thing China fears is the U.S.," says a European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Chinese shifted their military strategy several years ago from a continental strategy to one in which the U.S. border is the next line of defense. Beijing worries that the U.S. could push a European style multilateralism in Asia, in which borders don't matter and in which a Kosovo-style intervention is possible. China's first principle now is 'sovereignty.' "

Still, how much mileage China's leaders can wrest out of the EP-3E incident is unclear. The Bush administration has not offered the full apology Beijing demanded and has said it does not recognize Beijing's demand that the South China Sea airspace is legally off limits.

Either way, a simple calendar of upcoming events between the two states offers plenty of shoals to negotiate.

There is the question of whether the EP-3E itself will be returned anytime soon. Two days and 5.5 hours of meetings resulted in little other than that the two sides will "keep in touch," as a Chinese spokesman put it.

The U.S. Congress watched as the United States lost a U.N. bid in Geneva to censure China's human-rights record. Capitol Hill, in the post-Tiananmen Square massacre period of the 1990s, is a more vocal critic of China than is the executive branch. On June 3, the annual certification of China's trade status arrives, which bears on China's accession to the World Trade Organization. In July, a decision will be made on whether Beijing will succeed in its bid to host the 2008 Olympics — another issue that powerful lobbies in the U.S. Congress, particularly Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., have worked to block.

Sandwiched between these larger concerns are others: The highly unwelcome visits to the United States by Taiwan's Mr. Lee, who plans to go to Cornell University, and by the Dalai Lama.

In Beijing, official anti-American invective has not entirely ceased. The U.S. State Department travel warning issued days ago to native-born Chinese was described by Beijing as an attempt to "sabotage" relations with its ethnic offspring.

In recent days, photos of the presumed deceased Chinese pilot Wang Wei have been consistently on the front page of official newspapers. Wang has taken on the mantle of hero and "role model" for Chinese youth, not just because he lost his life in a tragic incident but because he helped create a means by which China could challenge the U.S. role in the region. Much of the praise of Wang centers around his defense of Chinese "sovereignty" — which some sources say has replaced "Marxism" or "class struggle" as a main virtue to be defended when Chinese free-market capitalism is far more influential than Maoist ideology.

The role the Chinese army now plays in Beijing continues to be watched closely. While the army played a key role in the EP-3E incident, few observers think that military figures have become dominant in decision-making beyond the Hainan incident.

Taiwan, a democratizing island of 23 million just off China's coast, still plays a central role in U.S.-China relations. It was not until China began conducting missile tests in the Taiwan straits in 1995, following a visit by then President Lee to his alma mater, Cornell, that the Clinton administration began to realize Taiwan was a potentially explosive problem.

In some ways, Taiwan is playing a game of time. Many pro-independence supporters on the island feel they do not have forever to solidify their security under a U.S. umbrella. They feel that one day the U.S. will not have either the will or the popular support to take Taiwan's side in a conflict. So Taiwan wants advanced U.S. military systems not just as self-defense, but in order to de facto integrate themselves into U.S. security.

"In the Chinese mind, what lurks behind the Taiwan issue is the U.S. using Taiwan as a platform," says Dr. Ross. "The Aegis (radar weapons system) would link Taiwan to the U.S., and a military presence by the U.S. on the island is a red-line issue for China."