Last summer in this column, I suggested that China would loom as the most pressing challenge in foreign affairs for whoever will become the next president of the United States.
Unfortunately, it looks as though that prediction is coming true.
China issued a "white paper" last month threatening to attack and invade Taiwan if the Taipei government drags its feet on reunification with the mainland or moves to declare itself independent. China has followed this up with a blistering barrage of threats portending war between the two. Beijing's propaganda machine has been pumping out material stressing the readiness and capability of the Chinese military, and declaiming that while war with Taiwan may not be desirable, it would be honorable.
This is a ham-handed effort to influence the outcome of elections this weekend in Taiwan, where a pro-independence faction has emerged as a serious contender. But a military threat by Communist China against increasingly democratic Taiwan disturbs much of the American public, agitates Congress, and inevitably compels the presidential candidates to spell out what their respective administrations would do in the event of war. US defense officials have already warned of "incalculable consequences" for China if it uses force against Taiwan. It likely would mean the involvement of US air and naval forces, if not ground troops.
The immediate effect on Chinese-US relations is to undermine the Clinton administration's campaign to expand trade with China, notably through China's entry into the World Trade Organization. The souring of the relationship has also increased support in Congress for supplying Taiwan with advanced defensive weaponry - a buildup that infuriates Beijing.
On the trade issue, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush take somewhat different tacks.
At present, Congress reviews China's trade status annually, but President Clinton is pushing a package that would give China permanent status, and WTO membership, in return for a dramatic opening of China's markets to American businessmen.
Mr. Bush takes a pro-business stance and supports this, but for Mr. Gore it presents a conundrum. Organized labor, particularly the Teamsters and United Auto Workers unions, strongly opposes this trade plan, and Gore counts heavily on union support. Thus Gore has waffled, alternately telling union leaders he would work for something better if elected president, then indicating support for the Clinton deal.
China's new bellicosity toward Taiwan and its poor record on human rights are working against passage of the trade deal, and White House political strategists concede they do not presently have the votes to pass the bill, expected to be considered by Congress in June.
Meanwhile, there appears to be gathering congressional sentiment for responding to China's bluster by approving sales of new weaponry to Taiwan, including four warships equipped with sophisticated Aegis radar systems.
As the presidential aspirants assess China's capacity for military adventurism, they are confronted by some contradictions. While China targets the US with its nuclear weapons, it is hardly any match for the awesomeness of American military power in a direct confrontation. However, its military forces are generally superior to those of its Asian neighbors, and a confrontation with one of them could draw the US in.
Taiwan is vulnerable. Its Army is vastly outnumbered by China's, but military experts doubt that China has the sea-lift capacity to throw a significant invasion force across the Taiwan Strait. However, China does have the capacity to launch a series of missile attacks across the narrow strait, which could have a substantial effect on Taiwan's industry and public morale. China would have to weigh the consequences of such a brutal assault on Western, and particularly American, public opinion.
Emboldened by the return of British Hong Kong and Portuguese Macau to the Chinese motherland, Beijing seems now determined to move on Taiwan, at least politically, and perhaps militarily.
But Taiwan has a powerful patron in the shape of the US.
Taiwan expects that the US will be its ally in staving off anything but an amicable rapprochement with China, which Taiwan itself has worked out. Chinese Communist aggression against Taiwan would produce an uproar in the US.
There is grave danger of miscalculation in all this. China should carefully weigh the pluses and minuses of backing off from its current belligerence. Those who would seek to be America's next president must weigh the implications if China does not.
*John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society