Small, democratic Taiwan expects volleys of verbal fireworks against it next week when China's Communist Party meets in a congress held every five years. The new threats wouldn't be worth much notice – if China wasn't also revving up its war machine against Taiwan.
China's leaders are expected to set a higher priority to their long-standing claim over this "breakaway" island about 100 miles off the mainland. Just how high will depend on how well China reads its own past.
Only 11 years ago it lobbed missiles into waters near Taiwan in "test" launches, hoping to influence an election there. (The winners wanted Taiwan to declare official independence.) The US rushed aircraft carriers to its ally's defense in a showdown with Beijing. China's move only backfired. Now more people than ever on the island of 23 million see themselves as having Taiwanese national identity. That further reinforces Taiwan's de facto independence.
Just the same, such a trend hasn't stopped Hu Jintao, the Communist Party leader, from stepping up the confrontation, perhaps to stoke Chinese nationalism and keep the masses diverted from the country's real problems, many of which stem from a lack of democracy.
As part of the leadership reshuffle before the party congress, Mr. Hu promoted top brass with long experience in preparing for an assault on Taiwan to the highest command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). And China has boosted the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan to more than 900 while also acquiring four naval destroyers and two more attack submarines.
China is rushing pell-mell to expand its military, according to a Pentagon report, and Taiwan is now the PLA's main, short-term focus. And all this despite Hu's call for China to achieve a "harmonious rise" as a global power and with hopes of being admired hosts of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The immediate focus of China's ire is a plan by Taiwan's president to hold a plebiscite in March asking if the government should apply for membership in the United Nations as "Taiwan" rather than under the current name of "Republic of China." Such a simple change of name is seen by Beijing as a provocative step toward declaring independence.
The US sides with China in this case, asking Taiwan to keep the status quo of an ambiguous identity in hopes of stability. But both China and the US err in not allowing Taiwan to be recognized in international bodies and by other countries. The people of Taiwan, who built a major world economy, are fed up with being isolated by Beijing in global affairs.
That popular frustration only spurs Taiwan's own militarization, reflected in plans to deploy 500 missiles. The longer the US tacitly helps China keep Taiwan bottled up as a nonentity, the more this young democracy will cry out for national selfhood, leading China down a path to war and the US toward another conflict in Asia.
China needs to accept that any integration with Taiwan might happen naturally. Already an estimated 1 million Taiwanese work in China, and Taiwan is China's biggest source of foreign direct investment. As the late leader Deng Xiaoping said of China's territorial disputes: Let future generations resolve them if this one can't.