"THE SURVIVAL OF LIBERTY in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," President Bush declared on January 20. Yet influential opinion insists that an exception be carved out for East Asia. There, they say, freedom is optional, hierarchical "Asian values" reign, and democracy is a luxury. In taking this view, the foreign policy establishment could not be more mistaken. Indeed, as the Bush administration segues from an anti-terrorism to a pro-democracy emphasis, the timing is impeccable for pressure on East Asia's remaining dictatorships, and the opportunity is huge.

Starting with Singapore's leader Lee Kuan Yew in the 1970s, the Asian values chorus has sung the praises of economic growth under authoritarian governance, identifying this mix with Confucianism. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) always sat lightly to democracy, even before making the horrendous mistake of admitting Burma's dictatorship in 1997. Liberal American China-specialists consider the twice democratically elected president Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan "reckless." They prefer the predictability of the unelected Red Mandarins in Beijing. "Stability" they understand; "people power" scares them. If China's economy grows at 9 percent, they purr, why should it bother with the messy confusions of democracy?

Beijing's smooth spokesmen in dark suits and red ties imply that communism in China has slipped away in the middle of the night. "Peace and development are our twin goals," Beijing says, and its Western friends parrot the half-truth. Sinologues eschew the crude term "Chinese Communists" for the more genteel "Chinese elites." President Clinton in the 1990s twice referred to the People's Republic of China as a former Communist country. Yet China's political crisis still lies ahead. The nine engineers who run the politburo steer perilously between the Scylla of commercialization and the Charybdis of Leninism. The "success of liberty" is not yet at hand in China.

America's ties with dictatorships are never close and enduring like those with democracies. Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, and other democracies interact with Washington in rich ways that cannot occur with China and Vietnam. Heartening improvement marks Jakarta-Washington relations, as Indonesia firms up its long-awaited democracy. Look at U.S., Australian, and other military activity in Indonesia's Aceh province after the tsunami. China would never permit these (highly effective) operations to cope with disaster in, say, Tibet, where Beijing's political control is tight as a drum.

A dictatorship shields its society from international relations. No one can say what priority the Chinese people give to holding Tibet or grabbing Taiwan. Still less does the world know how many North Koreans would favor reunification of their peninsula under the Seoul regime. The Chinese and North Koreans have never been consulted on these matters.

Japan's experience displays the link between democracy and peace, and between democracy and true stability. Japan's first rise to international power ended in a disastrous fall, as a militaristic regime's adventures in the 1930s and 1940s turned Asia against Tokyo. After an American occupation that wrote a new Japanese constitution, Japan became a democracy and has proved a model international citizen. Generous out of all proportion to the loudness of its voice, Japan has become perhaps the most important security partner of the United States in the world, with a sizable military that nevertheless has not killed a single foreigner in six decades.

A similar lesson is implicit in the age of economics that has blessed East Asia since 1975. An era of wars culminated in Vietnam. Subsequently, with the American market as a magnet, and American treaties with the democracies of Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others as the security framework, a new middle-class East Asia stood up as consumers, professionals, and vacationers. The "dominos" of Maoist revolution did not fall; the attraction of liberty and the efficacy of free markets was too great. Instead of war, ASEAN leaders indulged in summits, sweet talk, and golf.

Prior to invading Iraq, President Bush said "a liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region." Critics in their haste to declare Iraq a failure did not weigh Bush's prediction. Proved wrong, they uttered a panicky new cry: "Which country is Bush going to invade next?" Gearing up to oppose a vividly imagined fresh war, they overlooked the string-of-firecrackers effect. Precisely because the first firecracker, Iraq, went off with such a big bang, heard around the Middle East and beyond, the next firecrackers need go off less dramatically.

Success in Iraq, Bush's victory on November 2, Arafat's demise, and the ongoing appeal of economic and political freedom to ordinary folk, all triggered political changes across the globe that lessen the need for massive U.S. military intervention again soon. It's easier to integrate idealistic rhetoric with policy if the world knows you're serious about the use of military power; that's the difference between Clinton and Bush.

It is true that Iraq has distracted Bush from East Asia, but Afghanistan and Iraq have also been felt in East Asia, to America's benefit. The United States has become a big player on China's western doorstep in Uzbekistan and other Central Asia republics. Japan has shed some of its self-imposed reticence in security matters. Bush's message that anti-terrorism is ultimately pro-democracy is not lost on Southeast Asians, who face terror threats close to home.

Most poignant, the fall of a Middle East dictator embarrassed East Asia dictators. The toppling of Saddam Hussein furrowed brows in Beijing, Pyongyang, and other authoritarian capitals. Kim Jong Il suddenly wanted to do a deal over his nukes--until he detected the chance of a Kerry victory and got tough again until November 2. The surviving Leninist regimes were so aware of the string-of-firecrackers effect on tinder-dry dictatorships that their TV dared not show one picture of Saddam Hussein's statue biting the dust in Baghdad.

THE RISE OF CHINA is not necessarily a problem for the world except that China remains authoritarian. It is no accident that the two most antidemocratic regimes in Asia, North Korea and Burma, are its chief troublemakers (weapons and illicit drugs) and China's only quasi-allies in the world. The nature of Kim Jong Il's Stalinism precludes trust, effective inspections, or meaningful transmission of aid to the starving masses of North Korea. It becomes clearer with each lie from Pyongyang that only regime change there will free the Korean peninsula from nukes and grievous tension. Rangoon, for its part, has for 15 years rejected the result of a national election and kept the leader of the victorious party under house arrest.

A major liberalization--even short of democracy--in China would rock the shabby dictatorships in Pyongyang and Rangoon. A tide of democracy in all three would do more for peace, human rights, and, yes, stability in East Asia than a decade of "six country talks" or a hundred sessions of the Asian Regional Forum of ASEAN.

Vice President Cheney spoke of democracy in East Asia's future in a speech in Shanghai last April: "The desire for freedom is universal; it is not unique to one country, or culture, or region." Cheney also said: "We hear it said by skeptics that the greater Middle East is a hopeless cause for democratic values. . . . Not so long ago, the very same things were said about the people of Asia. Yet . . . today across this region we see entire nations . . . building strong, modern economies, and becoming stable, peaceful, and open societies of free peoples, governed under laws set by representatives chosen in free elections."

The official Chinese news agency published a "full text" of the vice president's speech that omitted every single word I have quoted here. It makes you wonder: If democracy is not alluring to China's 1.3 billion people, why would the Chinese party-state--in breach of a promise to the vice president of the United States to broadcast live and publish his text--cut those words?

To speak of democracy as Bush did at his inauguration on January 20, is not, of course, to stipulate the methods to be used in encouraging it. But when the vision exists, the handles to be grasped come into view. So it was in the years after Reagan's speech to the British parliament in 1982. So it is proving as Bush's pre-Iraq predictions come true before our eyes. Both presidents saw with a piercing eye the shaky foundations beneath houses of tyranny. In East Asia, Chinese voices will be the ones to set the rafters shaking.

Democracy in Taiwan and timid shoots of democracy in Hong Kong have cast a fresh light on China's future. Beijing was shocked at the fall of the Soviet Union and the rest of the Communist gang in Europe. But it is driven crazy by the appearance of democracy within Chinese civilization. The Chinese Communist leaders know that if Taiwan goes its own way successfully and indefinitely--the fear that prompted Beijing to enact last week an "Anti-Secession Law" aimed at Taiwan--the virus of democracy will spread this "disaster" to the "motherland of China." After all, in Taiwan it is a series of free elections that has crystallized a sense of Taiwanese sovereignty.

IT IS FASHIONABLE to rejoice that China "is joining the international community," whatever that is. The New York Times goes further and claims China is pushing the United States aside in Asia because of Bush's policies. "More than 50 years of American dominance in Asia is subtly but unmistakably eroding," wrote Jane Perlez in October 2003; China has transformed itself "from a country to be feared to one that beckons." She was quite wrong, as the tsunami aftermath alone made plain. She will continue to be wrong so long as her reporting takes no account of the oxygen of democracy seeping into the cells of authoritarianism.

If Beijing is becoming Asia's leader, evidence is scarce. Apart from the undoubted contribution of China's economic success to the region, what role is she playing? Beijing is the centerpiece of a cluster of Communist states that are the final standard-bearers of Leninism in a post-Soviet world. These remaining Leninist states, plus Burma, form the heart of human rights problems in East Asia. Constructive leadership for Asia on Beijing's part? Is this what makes China the country "that beckons," as Perlez put it? China's eclipse of the United States in Asia is indeed so "subtle" that I seem to have missed it entirely.

China's prospects of becoming the centerpiece of a new order in East Asia, pushing the United States aside, are close to zero. Initial success would quickly issue in failure, because a Japan that saw China eclipse the United States would challenge China. Once again, as for six decades from 1894, China and Japan would vie for dominance over the region. China would also learn, as Washington has done painfully, that the risen one gets bitten by those whose feathers have been ruffled. Above all, an authoritarian China lacks moral appeal to Asia. It does not even have a comfortable grip over its own semi-empire in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Inner Mongolia.

The critics of Bush's preemptions should remember that the failure to use military force in a timely manner has historically cost freedom dearly, and a trust in paper promises of peace has done the same. In 1928 the United States and France pledged no war ever between them, and, upon their invitation, 62 nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact. One of the High Contracting Parties was the emperor of Japan. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria. The League of Nations sent a committee to look at the situation. No nation lifted a finger to punish Japan, or substantially help China defend itself against Japan's further onslaught in 1937. A military dictatorship had gotten away with aggression. Only a horrendous world war reversed the damage.

Liberal foreign policy gurus are terrified that President Bush may "make Beijing angry" or "displease China" if he talks of democracy and freedom. In one sense there is no way Washington can fully please Beijing. The Communist regime's anger at hegemonists (that's us) is a theology. America is needed as an adversary to shore up the legitimacy of a Communist party-state that came to power by the gun and has lost faith in Marxism. At a different level Washington need have little fear of Beijing. Bush's firm positions on Taiwan and missile defense have not reduced the worthwhile areas of U.S.-China cooperation. Partly this is thanks to 9/11, of course, but the reason lies deeper. Although the Communist party needs to assail us verbally, no economic, cultural, or security interest of China is served by hostility to the United States. For all its fiery words (in recent weeks about U.S.-Japan cooperation over Taiwan's security), China, a lesser power, respects the strength of the superpower.

The next China drama will unfold not in its foreign relations but at home, as huge internal migrations, the Internet, a middle-class push for property rights, imperial tensions, and life in the World Trade Organization strip bare the illogic of "market Leninism." Traveling one road in economics and a different one in politics does not make for a smooth ride or a settled destination. How that schizophrenia is resolved will clarify the heft and worth of China's world role.

China's behavior is far from all bad. What restrains Beijing is growing marketization within China, U.S. power that keeps Beijing's ambitions in check, the moral authority of Taiwan's democracy, and the imperative of filling American stores with Chinese clothes, photo albums, TVs, and shoes if the Communist party is to survive. These restraints all come despite the instincts of China's authoritarian political system. They are required of China by the power of free markets and democratic ideas, and by the muscle of Uncle Sam, who is the beacon of both. Bush's words last week at the National Defense University apply with special force to East Asia: Dictatorship is the "last gasp of a discredited past." So do Reagan's words to the British parliament: "Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable."

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asia, is the author of The New Chinese Empire, just out in paperback, and biographies of Mao and Madame Mao.

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