Half a superpower: China still punches below its weight on the international stage, but it is the only country that could one day challenge American supremacy

Half a superpower: China still punches below its weight on the international stage, but it is the only country that could one day challenge American supremacyThree years ago, China "entered the world" (ru shi), the phrase coined by Beijing to describe joining the World Trade Organisation. Chinese politicians and economists celebrated, saying it was like "winning the economic Olympics". It seemed that the long march from the socialist self-reliance of the Mao Zedong era to fully signed-up membership of the global economy was complete.

China, once so hard to reach physically as well as ideologically (apart from Aeroflot and Air France there was only the bridge from Hong Kong, or the trans-Siberian railway), is now amazingly accessible. International airlines fly direct to most provinces and foreign visitors are waved through without so much as a currency declaration.

Western investors are urged not to "miss the boat to China". It is forecast that China's economy will become the largest in the world by 2040; it already accounts for 12 per cent of the world's energy consumption. No one talks about "communist China" any longer: even the Communist Party of China prefers to describe itself as the "ruling party". For those who have been watching the country since the years when Mao was alive, it is hard to exaggerate the extent to which China has changed.

Yet though it has now entered the world--or, more accurately, been allowed to continue to enter it since Richard Nixon reversed America's isolation of China, by visiting Beijing in 1972-the past cannot be so easily put aside. The last two legacies of the cold war--the division of Korea and the separation of Taiwan from the mainland--are still perilously unsolved. The love-hate relationship between Washington and Beijing has become even more complicated now that the United States is the world's only superpower and China the only power that might one day challenge it. Old stereotypes of an expansionist "yellow peril" often lurk behind western admiration for China's headlong GDP growth.

Mao himself identified the US-China relationship as crucial when America moved into east Asia after the defeat of Japan in 1945. He proposed to fly secretly to Washington to urge President Franklin Roosevelt to remain neutral in the civil war that was again gathering force between Mao's communist forces and the Chinese nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek. Mao's proposal, spiked by a pro-Chiang American general, raises one of the most fascinating "what if?" questions in modern history.

Relations with America have always been at the top of Beijing's foreign policy agenda and remain so today. As soon as Deng Xiaoping had won control after Mao's death in 1976, he flew to Washington and gained tacit US approval for his 1979 war against Vietnam. The shock of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, when several thousand young Chinese demonstrators were killed in the centre of Beijing, forced the US administration at least to profess concern about China's human-rights abuses.

Once this had faded, however, Deng's own successor as leader, Jiang Zemin, flew to Washington in 1997 to meet President Bill Clinton and set out China's aspirations for partnership. "The US is the most developed country and China the largest developing country ..." Jiang told students at Harvard. "China and the US share broad common interests and shoulder common responsibility" for such huge questions as maintaining world peace and protecting the environment, he said. With both leaders courting the media, the Bill-Zemin double act reached its climax the following summer when Clinton paid a return visit to Beijing and declared that China had "the right leadership at the right time".

Yet within a year everything had changed. The United States had bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Jiang suppressed dissidents who had been briefly heartened by Clinton's call for democracy. While Clinton had called for "strategic co-operation" with China, the incoming George W Bush spoke of "strategic competition". Three months into his new administration, an American spy plane had tipped an intrusive Chinese fighter into the ocean, and then crash-landed on Hainan Island.

Today at the foreign ministry in Beijing, officials give quiet but fervent thanks to 11 September 2001. If the neoconservative agenda of the Bush administration had not been wrenched off course by al-Qaeda, a new Sino-US confrontation could now be raging. And this time, 50 years after the first Taiwan Straits crisis, it would involve not one but two nuclear powers. Just days before 9/11, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the leading hawks in the Bush administration, gave warning that the US should not be "complacent" about the possible threat from China. One of Wolfowitz's earliest decisions as deputy secretary of defence was to cancel an order of Chinese-made berets for the US army.

The Chinese congratulate themselves on their speedy support for the Bush administration's "war on terror". It brought about, says Professor Jia Qingguo, an expert on the United States at Beijing University, an improvement in relations that would have been "inconceivable prior to 9/11". Off the record, Chinese officials put it more bluntly: "Before 9/11, we were being cast as the enemy. But then Bush found a real one instead."

Beijing raised no serious objection to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, though it had criticised the west's intervention in Kosovo two years previously. Instead, China claimed that Muslim separatists in its north-western Xinjiang region had been trained by the Taliban. It thus gained a free hand from Washington for its own repressive policies against dissidents.


China also avoided direct criticism of America's invasion of Iraq. In the Chinese capital, where millions once marched to condemn US imperialism, the authorities let a small group of foreigners walk around a park and demonstrate against the war for 20 minutes: no Chinese citizens were allowed to take part.

This low-key strategy appeared to be vindicated by the US presidential election. For the first time in any such contest since the communist revolution, the "China question" was absent from the debate. The foreign policy advisers who had urged caution upon Jiang and his successor Hu Jintao (who took over in March 2003), against the protests of veteran Chinese generals and party elders, had been proved right.

And yet, as the People's Daily commented recently, there are still many "knots which are hard to untie" between China and the United States. Taiwan remains a time bomb, as the clock ticks down towards an irrevocable gesture of Taiwanese independence which would goad Beijing beyond endurance. The island's eventual return to the mainland is an article of faith. Since 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule, Taiwan has been seen as the only item "left over from history".

No Chinese leader could survive who renounced the (possible) use of force against Taiwan, as the US demands. A growing battery of short-range missiles, stationed in Fujian Province opposite the island, makes the symbolic point. And though Beijing has taken a softer line since the crisis of 1995-96, when it staged military exercises in the Taiwan Straits, it has little to show for it. Indeed, Beijing's restraint has only encouraged a series of provocative gestures by Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian.

China insists that Taiwan could keep its own administration and even its military organs, yet no major Taiwanese party supports reunification. They have a point. Beijing has weakened the appeal of its "one country, two systems" formula by meddling in internal politics in Hong Kong, which is supposed to enjoy the same system as the one offered Taiwan.

As a trade-off for China's post-9/11 support for the war on terror, the Bush administration has been reassuring Beijing that it does not support Taiwanese independence. Yet Taiwan still has many supporters in neoconservative ranks and in the US defence department. Moreover, George W Bush himself has said that he will do "what it takes" to defend Taiwan. A huge arms package that he offered to Taiwan three years ago is now going through, even though it is opposed by Taiwanese peace movements, which fear it will trigger an arms race with Beijing.

China's nuclear strategy is based on minimum deterrence. Alone among the big five, it professes a policy of "no first use". Except for some dubious commercial transactions in missile technology, which were probably not sanctioned by Beijing, it opposes nuclear proliferation. And it is appalled by North Korea's nuclear adventurism.