China, with one foot in the civilized world and one foot in the terrorists' camp, must now find its rightful place.
Since Mao Tse-tung seized power in 1949, the People's Republic has declared itself the leader of an aggrieved developing world at war with the imperialist, capitalist, hegemonic powers led by the United States.
In the ensuing half century, Beijing discovered the wonders of capitalism, and liberated much of its economy. But it has vowed to keep intact the Leninist system that ensures its hold on power. That philosophy makes China the natural ally of tyrants worldwide.
In international relations, the opening to Western trade and investment - which fueled China's military modernization - required Chinese diplomacy to maintain the flow of dollars and technology even as its military doctrine and internal propaganda portrayed the US as China's enemy. The same hostile mentality that brought China to war against the US in Korea lies simmering, boiling over at times: Washington's accidental bombing of the Belgrade Embassy, Beijing's fomenting of the 1996 missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the EP-3 incident.
After each crisis, Chinese leaders proclaim their desire to restore "normal" ties with Washington to minimize interruption in lucrative commercial exchanges. But other relationships continue - such as China's sale of arms and dangerous technology to rogue states. That commerce has long included the technology for weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, in violation of treaties Beijing has signed. Such conduct challenges China's status as a "peace-loving" member of the UN and its special role on the Security Council, charged with maintaining international peace.
The international community has welcomed China to the World Trade Organization and awarded Beijing the 2008 Olympic Games, pinning its hopes on those segments of Chinese society that aspire only to respectability in the family of nations.
Whether that leap of faith is justified will be determined largely by the role Beijing plays in the aftermath of last week's attacks. Every country on the list of rogue states that practice terrorism - Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea - has received arms and technology from China. And each has declared the US its enemy.
Washington has warned that it will no longer tolerate governments offering support to terrorist organizations. But what of the states one or two steps removed in the chain of terrorism? The Taliban government of Afghanistan is clearly a haven for Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident who is a principal suspect in the attacks.
Pakistan gives arms and support to the Taliban. But China provides Pakistan with nuclear and missile technology. And Russia sells China sophisticated weaponry intended for use against the US Navy.
A pattern emerges: a coalition of governments, quasi-governments, and other groups united to varying degrees in at least one common goal - the undermining of US interests. China's call for global efforts against "hegemonism" and its view that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" make it, along with Russia, a leader in the anti-US campaign. Even before Sept. 11, Chinese military officials touted bin Laden's tactics against the US as models of "asymmetrical warfare."
It is convenient for Beijing now to offer condolences, condemn terrorism generally, and lump homegrown violent movements reacting to violent Chinese policies in Xinjiang or Tibet as the moral equivalents of international terrorists attacking Western assets and values worldwide. But that will not pass the test Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has declared: "You are with us or you're not. Are you on our team or not? There is no gray area."
It was not a US team he invoked; it was the cause of international civilization and multicutural diversity. The World Trade towers were as much symbols of a detested value system for bin Laden's terrorists as the giant Buddhas were for the Taliban - or, for that matter, as Tibet's temples are for the Chinese Communists. China's leaders have a critical choice. Nothing less than the future of that great nation's relations with the rest of the world is at stake.
Joseph A. Bosco teaches in the Asian-studies program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.