China is home to nearly one-quarter of humanity and bustles with the world's third-largest concentration of purchasing power. It holds nuclear weapons and may soon pass the United States as the largest source of greenhouse gases. It also has a reprehensible record on human rights.
In short, the US can't ignore China. Past Republican presidents, conservatives critics like Pat Robertson, and the current Democratic administration all have argued that engaging China is the way to help it continue to develop as a responsible member of the world community.
The US has just sent its Great Persuader on a nine-day tour across China. President Clinton has had an unprecedented opportunity to engage not only politicians and other leaders, but millions of the Chinese people themselves.
He has spoken - and listened - in the same engaging, friendly, low-key manner so familiar to Americans. He has been able to raise delicate issues without offending his hosts or closing their ears.
On his well-orchestrated trip, Mr. Clinton talked about economics, trade, and the environment. Obviously, many contentious issues remain, as we noted yesterday. Hoped-for trade deals weren't forthcoming - something perhaps understandable with China surrounded by a deep Asian economic crisis.
From an opening press conference to a speech at Beijing's elite university, from hosting a radio talk show to appearing on China's version of "60 Minutes," the president argued the advantages to China of allowing the free and open exchange of ideas. He seemed never to miss a chance to make his point - even using a question from a librarian to suggest Internet links between US and Chinese libraries to let new ideas flow.
Seeds of openness were sown by the president on this trip. Now they must be nurtured through consistent contacts at all levels. Ultimately, the point is not that a visiting US president can speak and worship freely in China, but that Chinese citizens can.
"We can maximize our influence [on China] only by reaching out a hand of cooperation as well as standing strong when the moment requires it," Clinton said. It was a statement that aptly summed up his trip.