WASHINGTON - For the rest of the month, President Bush should forget about Scooter Libby and his low polls and concentrate on getting ready for China. His trip there this month could be the most important step he takes this year.
It could be his legacy.
It's difficult to overestimate how important China will be to America's future. How the U.S.-China relationship evolves - cooperative venture or next superpower rivalry - will unite, for the first time, East and West or rock the world. We should all be nervous about the outcome.
China is huge in population, size, and ambition. Its potential for greatness is awesome; its problems are immense.
The Chinese people are gradually realizing they don't want to live in a totalitarian state, but, so far, the state still rules. Human rights do not apply. How the capitalization and the democratization of China play out will be crucial to Americans.
But there are many, many other reasons to worry.
As China morphs into an economic behemoth, it is rapidly becoming our major rival for energy. Once this giant fully awakens, the world's limited stores of fossil fuels will be a major, growing source of friction between China and the United States.
Our largest trade deficit is with China, and there is no sign it will stop ballooning. Americans - and big companies such as Wal-Mart - have come to depend on low-cost Chinese goods. But every year billions more dollars flow into China from the United States than come to the United States from China. Trade tensions are becoming pricklier.
The U.S.-China textile deal just announced - restricting imports of popular Chinese-made clothing and driving up the cost U.S. consumers pay about $20 a year - should help U.S. textile manufacturers but it expires after 2008. And the agreement was a giant step backward from the President's free-trade rhetoric.
China for years has been a big polluter and, in its zeal to become a global economic powerhouse, has no intention of laying out big sums to clean up its mess. U.S. manufacturers and utilities especially chafe at environmental restrictions imposed on them which foreign companies ignore.
Chinese piracy of U.S. intellectual property - movies, books, and music - is a constant irritant to this country. New movies are sometimes for sale in DVD format in China before they hit U.S. movie theaters. But China limits its consumers' access to U.S. goods and services. And China's currency manipulation drives the U.S. Treasury to distraction.
The United States has its fingers crossed that avian influenza - bird flu - won't break out from its infection of millions of Chinese birds to become a pandemic. Good cooperation is vital with the notoriously secretive Chinese government, which almost caused a catastrophe by denying the existence of SARS.
Chinese families are thrifty, studious, and disciplined; they save an average of half of their income, partly out of fear they won't have enough in old age. American families spend a lot, waste a lot, and save nothing even though many think their retirements are far from secure.
There is no military threat from China, at least, not yet. But China's continuing saber-rattling posture against Taiwan is worrisome to the U.S. military, which hopes the standoff stands without forcing the U.S. to go to Taiwan's aid if China invades it.
Mr. Bush's father was an envoy to China, but that was a long time ago in the mid 1970s, before the monster began to stir. When the former president visited China in 1989, just before the violence of the Tiananmen Square protests, Chinese police prevented a famous astrophysicist and dissident, Fang Lizhi, from accepting the president's invitation to his farewell banquet.
This will be Mr. Bush's third trip to China. He needs to take a long look at the new China and listen to its leaders from the perspective of how to build strong U.S.-China ties in an age when many U.S. relationships are fraying.
He must respect China's emerging power but also understand that the future has yet to be written. How Bush guides this relationship in the next three years is of paramount importance.
If we're not careful, we'll get a China that resents U.S. power, sees us as a force to be overcome, diminished, and disrespected, and joins with other nations to try to end the American era. Preparing to leave for Asia, Mr. Bush conceded that relations with China are "mixed."
This trip will produce no breakthroughs. But, as with all diplomacy, it will be the subtle signals and gestures that set the stage for a mutually beneficial working alliance or a new hostility that could last an age.
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