Fledgling Dragon

Rising powers like modern China that are just spreading their military and economic wings need special care and handling.

That's the lesson to be learned from this week's incident of a detained US spy plane in China, but also from world wars of the 20th century and even from America's early years as a rising power.

China's holding of the spy plane and 24 crew has a useful parallel in the "Chesapeake incident" of 1807, when a young America under Thomas Jefferson was spreading its wings under the watchful eyes of Europe's established powers.

In that confrontation, Britain, as the unchallenged ruler of the high seas, misjudged the nationalist passions of a youthful US when one of its ships fired on the US Naval Vessel Chesapeake off Virginia and then "press-ganged" four American sailors to work for the British Navy. That incident eventually led to the War of 1812.

Such history lessons were repeated in the early 20th century when both the US and Britain, as allies and established powers, misjudged the rising powers of Weimar Germany and imperial Japan. A series of misjudgments and mishandlings of key incidents helped lead to World War II.

After the war, however, the US did learn how to deal with yet another rising power, the Soviet Union, by containing it rather than confronting it, and not letting such incidents as a downed U-2 spy plane or Soviet missiles in Cuba lead to war.

The Bush administration can bring the same wisdom of history to this current incident and to a China growing in regional and global ambitions.

Beijing's goals to retake Taiwan and spread its influence over the South China Sea lie at the heart of its hardened diplomatic stance in the spy-plane incident. As former Premier Zhou Enlai once said: "All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means."

But China also needs the US for its other goal of becoming an economic power. Access to the US market and entry into the World Trade Organization are just two levers for the US to temper China's military ambitions.

China needs assurances that the US defense of Taiwan and its military presence in East Asia are not a disguise for a strategy to weaken or split up China. But Beijing sees the regular US aerial surveillance (from military bases in Japan) as evidence that the US is trying to deny China any powerful role in the region.

China need not be a competitor to the US in Asia. This incident can be resolved peacefully and even used to make that point to Beijing. Indeed, the US can find ways to become a partner with China - perhaps even militarily - and not head down a path to war.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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