In a display of assertiveness on the world stage, Peking yesterday reacted with anger to Washington's decision to let the President of Taiwan visit the US.
Under pressure from Congress, President Bill Clinton has granted a six- day visa to President Lee Teng-hui to enable him to attend a reunion next month at his alma mater, Cornell University.
President Lee will be the first leader of Taiwan to visit the US, albeit "in a private capacity", since Washington restored relations with China in 1979.
Peking responded with threats. The Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, summoned the US ambassador, Stapleton Roy, and warned of "grave consequences" to US ties. "We solemnly urge the US administration to seriously consider the consequences of allowing Lee's visit and immediately reverse its erroneous decision," Mr Qian said.
A Foreign Ministry statement, added: "If the United States mistakenly appraises the situation and clings obstinately to this course, it will certainly bring serious damage to China-US relations and the United States will bear full responsibility for the consequences." The visit, said the statement, breached "Chinese sovereignty".
Sino-US relations have entered new waters since President Clinton decided to de-link trade issues from human rights a year ago. His unconditional renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation trading status was followed by a few honeymoon months. But they soon gave way to disputes over intellectual property-rights protection and China's failed attempt to become a founding member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
At the same time, to the embarrassment of the US administration, it became clear that human rights abuses against dissidents had worsened since the renewal of MFN status.
Chinese police are now rounding up dissidents ahead of the sixth anniversary next month of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Jiang Qisheng, a former graduate student, yesterday became the 11th activist to be detained or disappear over the past week. These developments give ammunition to those in Congress who argue that instead of favouring China, the US should reward Taiwan's economic and political reforms.
Last September, the US adjusted its policy to allow more high-level commercial visits to Taiwan and let senior Taiwan leaders "transit" through the US. The vote in Congress this month to allow President Lee a visa was so overwhelming that President Clinton on Monday was forced to reverse an earlier decision and permit President Lee's visit.
China's resistance to the notion that the MFN decision might call for some quid pro quo on human rights is only one instance of how growing economic might has bred indifference to global opinion.
Peking's decision to conduct a nuclear test after the international community extended the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ruffled Japanese feathers. Tokyo reacted by cutting aid to China, which, although insignificant compared to the big Japanese loans that will not be affected, is a rare public admonition. China's official media was embarrassed into silence and did not respond to Japan's action.
Peking has also adopted a bellicose approach in the territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands, establishing "fishermen's shelters" on Mischief Reef and sending frigates into the area, after the Philippines government recently organised a visit by foreign journalists.