Steve Chapman

Taiwan, which is part of China in theory but functionally independent, is the issue that could push the U.S. and China into a shooting war. But it always has been -- and the two sides have been able to keep it from mushrooming out of control. The Economist magazine reports that "relations across the strait have never been better."

Any assessment of the potential danger posed by China ought to incorporate its past behavior. MIT political scientist M. Taylor Fravel points out that since 1949, Beijing has settled 17 of its 23 territorial disputes. In most, it has offered significant compromises, "usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land."

"Over the past decade," he testified recently on Capitol Hill, "China has not used its armed forces to actively enforce its claims." Nor has it invented new claims to match its growing wealth and power.

Come to think of it, China hasn't fought a war since 1979. Its record is an encouraging contrast with that of the U.S., which has entered several wars of choice.

The Chinese have found that pushing their agenda can be counterproductive. When China acts assertively, its neighbors tend to seek safety in the arms of Uncle Sam. The Beijing government may have learned something from the experience of Germany -- which has gained a dominant role in Europe by being careful not to revive old fears.

China has followed that model in many respects, signing some 250 multilateral agreements, joining the World Trade Organization and taking part in United Nations peacekeeping operations. It's been generally supportive of international norms that mandate peaceful resolution of differences. It hasn't pursued drastic changes or used drastic measures.

That could change. Past results, we all know, are no guarantee of future performance. But peace has held so far, and it just might keep doing so.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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