While United States policymakers are preoccupied with the Middle East and North Korea, trouble may be looming in China.
Of all the complexities confronting the American planners, China may be one of the most confusing. On the one hand, China's new leadership seems intent on establishing economic stability and growth. That does not suggest any eagerness to engage in military confrontation outside its borders.
But on the other hand, the US is concerned about a Chinese military buildup. Central Intelligence Agency Director Porter Goss told Congress last month that the expansion of China's military capacity is disturbing the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and threatening US forces in the region. The US concern is only strengthened by the apparent intention of European nations to end their embargo on arms shipments to China.
Meanwhile there are contradictory signals from China. For example, it is firing - or accepting the early resignation of - Tung Chee Hwa, who has been Hong Kong's chief executive since China assumed control of the former British colony in 1997. Mr. Tung has been inept in his administration and maladroit in his handling of pro-democracy forces, which have mounted massive demonstrations. Tung was theoretically to have retained his position until 2007, but the writing has been on the wall since December when Chinese President Hu Jintao leveled public criticism at his style of management.
His departure suggests that China is to permit more pragmatic oversight of Hong Kong and its vigorous free-enterprise system. Democratic forces in Hong Kong have been demanding universal suffrage and free elections, demands that Beijing has determinedly rebuffed. Beijing permitted strictly limited elections last year for the local legislature in Hong Kong, but the democratic forces did not fare as well as they had hoped, and pro-Beijing forces were left in control. With its political sway over Hong Kong reaffirmed, Beijing is apparently feeling less threatened and willing to cut Hong Kong a little more slack.
While China may be willing to experiment a little with Hong Kong, it is not about to be as accommodating to Taiwan, which it considers an intrinsic part of China although Taiwan has been run by the Chinese Nationalists since 1949.
The relationship between China and Taiwan is delicate and often tense. Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has unsettled the status quo recently with radical talk of independence. He has backed down, partly in response to US unhappiness over this initiative that might provoke a crisis with the mainland. And there has appeared to be some recent relaxation of tension with cross-Strait charter flights and a few other conciliatory moves.
China, however, has now complicated the situation by proposing "antisecession" legislation that was presented Tuesday to the National People's Congress and is expected to be passed next week. It specifies that any separatist move by Taiwan would be blocked by force.
China watcher Alan Romberg, in an analysis for the Pacific Forum, the Asia-Pacific arm of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the act will probably trigger "a new round of recrimination and fear" in Taiwan, conceivably touching off a cycle that "spirals out of control."
With various other concerns in the world, the US is not anxious for any new tensions that might disturb the status quo between China and Taiwan to create a new crisis in Asia. While the US recognizes China and seeks to continue its diplomatic engagement, the US would necessarily have to side with Taiwan in the event of any military move against it by China.
This would be especially damaging at a time when the US is counting on China's influence to help defuse the critical nuclear-weapons problem in North Korea. China is already irritated by a new US-Japan agreement in which Japan joins the US in describing security in the Taiwan Strait as a "common strategic objective," and calls for Japan to take a greater role in conjunction with US forces in Asia. Japan has been carefully watching the growing economic and military might of China, as well as a concerted Chinese diplomatic offensive around the world.
If ongoing tensions between China and Taiwan are not to "spiral out of control," both sides must exercise restraint, and skillful diplomacy is required by the US.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration.