Leading Article: America finds a rival for the next century

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IT IS disquieting to find out how thoroughly Chinese spies have penetrated America's nuclear research laboratories, as detailed yesterday in a report published by the US Congress. The Intelligence Oversight Committee has concluded that the Chinese have stolen details of nuclear warheads giving them the potential to build weapons, in the words of the report, "on a par" with those of the United States. Not only does this expose an almost inconceivably sloppy attitude to the protection of such important information, but the attempts of the Clinton administration to avoid its responsibility for this debacle also show how difficult the West now finds it to deal with an economically and politically resurgent China.

China is too big to fit comfortably into the tidy frame of the post-Cold War settlement. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, world peace has relied on Uncle Sam being stronger than anyone who would go toe to toe with him.

Strategists always accepted that shocks - such as the present war over Kosovo - would shake the American hegemony. But the theory was that nothing would overturn it, because there was no longer any other superpower. With China's acquisition of the latest American technology, that assumption can no longer be so easily held.

China worries the West because when she looks into the mirror she sees herself as a superpower, and wants to be treated as such. These desires must not be ignored. The Chinese regime is virulently nationalistic and has disputes with almost every one of the country's many neighbours. China is still occupying Tibet and parts of India after 30 years; she claims the minuscule Spratly Islands between Vietnam and Borneo; she periodically threatens the security and independence of Taiwan.

The Americans have not yet dropped their guard in East Asia. But they have wavered. When the Chinese military held manoeuvres off Taiwan in 1996, it was only the resolution of Congress that pushed Bill Clinton into sending aircraft carriers. When the spying imbroglio emerged two years ago, the Clinton administration was at first eager to pin the blame on those of Presidents Reagan and Bush and then made no effort to help the Intelligence Oversight Committee in its investigation. And all of this because China has become so economically important to America.

Washington needs no "security partnership" with Peking. Such a move would be wrong, given its militaristic rulers who oppress their people and show no desire to back down over their foreign adventures. Instead, America should face up to China by reaffirming its support for East Asian security. America will gain greater economic benefits and more improvements to human rights by standing upright rather than kowtowing before China. With China, the US must be fair but firm if the Pacific century is not to begin with a cold snap.