In the dragging last days of the Clinton administration, and certainly for whatever new administration succeeds it, China looms as the most pressing challenge in foreign affairs.
True, Russia is worrisome as its economy falters and President Yeltsin discards premiers almost before they can get their new business cards printed. True, a permanent peace in the Middle East remains elusive. True, regional wars simmer, as between India and Pakistan. True, tyrants such as North Korea's Kim Jong Il, threaten irrational acts of nuclear missilery.
Yet Russia has forsaken communism, and if its capitalism is erratic and its democracy befuddled, it presents no serious threat to US security. If the Middle East is not yet a place of harmony, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak is making headway with both Syria and the Palestinians. As for regional wars, the stunning display of US power against the Serbs is a sobering message to would-be aggressors. And even though the US military establishment probably needs recharging and refinancing, it remains a formidable deterrent to tyrants with delusions of expansionist grandeur.
China, the most populous country in the world, is a much more serious problem, even though its military is relatively unsophisticated. Its regime has abandoned communism as an economic blueprint, but retained it to hold power.
President Clinton told a group of newspaper editors, earlier this year: "The question China faces is how best to assure its stability and progress. Will it choose openness and engagement? Or will it choose to limit the aspirations of its people without fully embracing the global rules of the road? Only the first path can really answer the challenges China faces."
There has been no sign that Mr. Clinton's advice to Beijing is being followed. Two disturbing events suggest that China has even moved backward.
One is the virulent attack launched on the Falun Gong movement. The Falun Gong might seem an unlikely threat to Chinese rulers. It combines some of the contemplative beliefs of ancient Asian religions with breathing exercises and martial arts routines. But it has millions of followers. It is this capacity to organize masses that disturbs China's leaders, for it poses an ideological alternative to communism, and a threat to their hold on the country. Thus there have been arrests of Falun Gong members, destruction of their materials, and calls for arrest of the movement's leader, Li Hongzhi, who is in exile in the US.
The other recent development of concern is China's aggressive rumbling against Taiwan. The genesis of all this lies not in Beijing, but in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, where President Lee Teng-hui announced a sudden change in stance toward the mainland. Hitherto, both China and Taiwan have agreed that Taiwan is part of China, although both maintain they are the rightful rulers of the entire country.
Mr. Lee, however, talked of a "state-to-state" relationship that Beijing interpreted as a threat of independence. While Lee was provocative, the response from Beijing has been extraordinarily threatening. Should that, as one American China expert puts it, result in China "taking a slap at Taiwan," the challenge for the US would be grave.
The US recognizes the Beijing government. But its unofficial relations with Taiwan remain cordial and for political and moral reasons the US would be obliged to help Taiwan thwart a Chinese assault. That would torpedo the Clinton administration's delicate policy of "engagement" with China, under which it seeks an expansion of trade and other ties while castigating China for its record on human rights.
Any American dialogue with China has been made more difficult by the recent US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The US has called it a targeting error and apologized, but the Chinese still harbor suspicions. Chinese military action against Taiwan, and a US riposte, would put an already frosty dialogue with Beijing quickly into the deep freeze.
Handling a prickly and unpredictable China remains Washington's No 1 foreign policy challenge.
*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society