No foreign-policy issue facing the United States is more important than our longterm relationship with China, the most populous nation and the fourth-largest country on Earth. If we think in terms of uninterrupted statehood, China is the oldest nation-state, accustomed to taking the long view in foreign affairs. More significantly, if its present rate of economic growth continues unabated, it may become the second most powerful country in the world within a generation.

It is, therefore, as puzzling as it is frightening that the notion of an inevitable war with China is gaining credence in Washington, D.C. It is being discussed within the “Blue Team”—a loose coalition of hawkish neoconservative advisors, think-tank analysts, and lobbyists—with the same cool detachment that characterized German considerations of a “preventive war” against Russia before August 1914. “We did not will this,” the kaiser murmured despondently four years later, as he surveyed Europe’s smoldering ruins and his empire followed that of Czar Nicholas into demise. He was wrong: Not acting to avoid war is tantamount to “willing” it, just as the absence of specific murderous intent does not absolve reckless drivers of homicide. This message seems to be lost on the Bush administration as it pursues a policy that seems designed to provoke a violent confrontation between the United States and China within the next decade.

Almost 50 years ago. President Nixon accepted China’s conditions for the establishment of diplomatic relations. The United States withdrew recognition of Taiwan as the “Republic of China” and pulled its troops from the island. In the famous Shanghai Commimiqué brokered by Henry Kissinger, Washington accepted that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” This was followed by Jimmy Carter’s 1979 communique in which the United States recognized Beijing as “the sole legal government” of China. Finally, in Alexander Haig’s 1982 communiqué, the Reagan administration pledged to reduce arms sales to Taiwan.

Nixon, Carter, and Reagan—a “realist,” an “idealist,” and a Cold Warrior shared an appreciation of China’s importance in world affairs and acted accordingly. Their decisions did not imply an endorsement of China’s communist regime. They reflected the American interest in establishing a working relationship with a major power. The three communiqués were political acts, and thus imperfect, but for decades, they have provided a viable, bipartisan basis for Sino-American relations.

April’s 11-day crisis following the emergency landing of an American spy plane on Hainan after the collision with a Chinese fighter led to a radical alteration of the Nixon/Carter/Reagan policy. Throughout the standoff. President Bush was under mounting pressure to escalate the conflict. Leading Republicans in Congress—including Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee—began referring to the spy plane’s crew as “hostages.” The President nevertheless ended the deadlock by declaring that he was “very sorry,” while insisting that he was not apologizing.

This alleged disgrace threw the Blue Team into a fit of rage. Sen. John McCain greeted the release by denouncing

the Chinese policy of dangerously challenging our lawful and essential surveillance flights in international airspace over the South China Sea. We must avoid, at all costs, giving Chinese leaders the impression that they will profit by challenging America’s global responsibilities.

The April 8 Weekly Standard featured a lead commentary by William Kristol and Robert Kagan headlined “A National Humiliation.” They called for full-scale retaliation, including a curtailment of trade relations, massive arms transfers to Taiwan, and opposition to holding the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The administration needed little prodding. Once the plane’s crew was stateside. President Bush declared that the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself” He also said that he wanted to extend the Theatre Missile Defense System to cover Taiwan—essentially reviving the defense treaty that had been defunct since 1979. The administration announced that it would sell submarines, destroyers, missiles, and electronic equipment to Taiwan, although this decision violates both the spirit and the letter of Al Haig’s subsequent pledge to reduce arms sales. It is also at odds with the domestic law—the Taiwan Relations Act—that restricted sales to defensive weapons.

The subsequent decision to allow Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to meet U.S. congressmen during stopovers in the United States amounted to granting Taiwan semi-official status, in violation of the “one China” commitment. Almost simultaneously, Mr. Bush received the Dalai Lama at the White House on the anniversary of China’s occupation of Tibet. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommended that the United States’ strategic focus be shifted from Europe to Asia and admitted that the proposed missile-defense system was meant to counter the threat from China, not just from such “rogue states” as North Korea and Iran.

Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that Japan should help defend Taiwan and asked for Japanese help in building eight submarines that the United States had promised to sell to Taiwan. But Japan, and other U.S. allies in the Pacific, remained distinctly aloof The chill in Washington’s relations with Beijing coincided with the rise to power of Junichiro Koizumi, a tough and popular nationalist politician who has made it clear that he would not be subservient to Washington. As soon as he won the premiership, Koizmni appointed Makiko Tanaka, the daughter of Kakuei Tanaka (Japan’s controversial prime minister of the 1970’s), as his foreign minister. One of Tanaka’s first moves was to declare that the time had come to review America’s use of military bases in Japan. She also made it clear that Japan wanted peace and relaxed relations between China and Taiwan.

So far, the response from Beijing has been muted. Chinese President Jiang Zemin was careful to put immediate conflicts in perspective, stressing the wider relationship, including trade, which earned China an $84-billion surplus with the United States last year. In the short term, China will refrain from strong reactions, just as it did after the “accidental” bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. It will grin and bear it, while pursuing aggressive economic growth and embarking on a steady military buildup in cooperation with Russia. This is in line with the late Deng Xiaoping’s policy of tao guang yang hui: Hide your real strength to buy time for your development.

The Chinese know that the readiness of the Bush administration to provoke China and its desire to keep it in check is coupled with Washington’s complete unwillingness to limit commerce with Beijing or to use trade as a tool of policy. This is the fundamental contradiction of the United State’s China policy, reminiscent of our ambivalent relationship with Japan between the two world wars. Beijing rightly assumes that America will prove too greedy to refrain from giving China’s rulers the tools they need to assert eventual regional primacy. They were greatly heartened when China was granted permanent normal trade relations status by Congress last year, giving it unconditional and unlimited access to the American market. In addition, far from rebuilding and defending the industrial foundations of its national security, corporate America is eagerly transferring those foundations across the Pacific.

Top Chinese politicians will not state openly what economist Wang Jian of the State Planning Commission in Beijing concluded in a recent interview: “Unless the Chinese split themselves, I don’t see how the United States can frustrate our national goals.” Those goals unequivocally include reunification. The “one China” principle is an issue over which Beijing will fight: If it wavers over the status of Taiwan, its hold over Sinkiang, Tibet, or even Manchuria may become tenuous. China’s consistency on this point is a matter not of its status as a great power but of its survival as a state.

On the other hand, it is unclear what the “national goals” of the United States in and around China are. The Blue Team refers to “essential” surveillance flights and invokes America’s supposed “global responsibilities,” but behind the global-hegemonist rhetoric, there is only one real question: Is any vital American interest involved in who rules Taiwan? Should America be ready to go to war to prevent China from establishing control over its island province?

For over 50 years, the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) ruled Taiwan, having retreated there in 1949 after Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek in the civil war. The KMT old guard regarded the island as an integral part of China and clamped down on any display of Taiwanese particularism, let alone separatism. By the early 1970’s, the claim of the “Republic of China” to represent the only legitimate Chinese government was no longer taken seriously by the rest of the world, and most Taiwanese appeared more interested in economic prosperity than in forcing the issue of their island’s ambiguous status. Chiang’s successors in Taipei could agree with Mao’s successors in Beijing on one critical issue: They were all living in the same country and, therefore, an eventual reunification was desirable and inevitable. This accord provided the basis for an uneasy but manageable status quo. But in March of last year, the separatist Democratic Progressive Party, supported mostly by the native Taiwanese, won the presidential election and changed the equation. Although President Chen Shui-bian has toned down his pro-independence rhetoric over the past year and a half, the latest tension in Sino- American relations may encourage Taiwanese separatists to conclude that they would remain under an American security umbrella even if their actions present an intolerable challenge to Beijing.

Taipei should be disabused of any notion that America will risk its soldiers’ lives—let alone its West Coast cities—for the sake of Taiwan’s final status. George W. Bush’s pledge to provide “whatever it [takes] to help Taiwan defend itself must be qualified, because permanent American security guarantees to distant countries are a bad idea in principle—and Taiwan is not even a country. The character of the regime in China is irrelevant here: Risking an all-out war with it over the way one of its provinces is governed is plainly ludicrous. Confucius says, “He who gives no thought to difficulties in the future is sure to be beset by worries much closer at hand.” The United States must not paint itself into a corner and face the choice between a humiliating retreat and an unpredictable military escalation that may lead to nuclear exchange. If such escalation takes place, not a single country in East Asia will side with America. Tokyo will provide the cue for South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines by declaring neutrality and annulling the present military alliance with Washington. This would irrevocably alter the regional balance to America’s disadvantage.

China will be a “threat” to the United States only if America continues to make China its business. Just as Great Britain realized that it could not jeopardize its commercial and security interests by trying to dictate the formula for Hong Kong, the security of the United States must not be made dependent on the resolution of the Taiwan issue. Only by disentangling itself from its many “global responsibilities”—from the Middle East to Korea, from the Balkans to the Baltics—will the United States regain its ability to define a strategic doctrine based on its true interest and a foreign policy that balances rational objectives and the limited resources used in their pursuit.