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It is recorded in the Analects Of Confucius that Yuan Xian once asked Confucius about the virtue of benevolence and the four vices, “”insisting on winning, boastfulness, greed, and harbouring bitterness”.

Confucius acknowledged it was extremely rare for people to be without these vices. But whether they are also benevolent, he said: “”I cannot tell.”

The meetings this week between Russia’s and China’s presidents, Mr Vladimir Putin and Mr Jiang Zemin, are the first in a decade, when the leadership of the two countries can be said to be looking genuinely for the basis of mutual benevolence.

If China is to reintegrate Taiwan without war with the United States, if the Americans are to acknowledge they cannot risk the defence of Taiwan against China, both men must respect and trust each other, and collaborate to a degree impossible in Sino-Russian relations for a generation and a half.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin could not help displaying each of the four vices on every occasion he met the Chinese.

The Chinese leaders remained discreet in their recognition of the obvious and their contempt for it. They waited for a change of power in the Kremlin.

Their hopes were aroused, then dashed by Mr Yevgeny Primakov’s brief time as prime minister. Mr Putin is now China’s best hope.

The Russian President realises he must convince Mr Jiang he is exercising more than interim political control.

The Chinese President knows he must convince his counterpart that an alliance between the two of them will prevail, whatever the United States, and perhaps the European Union also, throw at them both.

And one more thing: For President Putin to trust President Jiang, the Chinese leader must convince the Russians that China can be more than a tactical ally and a useful client for the time being.

The new Russian leadership needs to be convinced that China will not one day threaten Russia itself.

There has never been a conjunction of circumstances so suitable to the establishment of benevolence between Moscow and Beijing.

By insisting on deploying a national missile interceptor system despite its recent technical failure, and by obliging Israel to cancel its contract to supply China with an airborne radar control system, the US is making a display of all the four vices.

You do not need to be a Confucian to understand that Taiwan is not Kosovo, or even Belgrade, and that the US cannot risk certain casualties in defence of the island — if China and Russia ally themselves to insist on reintegration by 2005.

LAST UNDONE TASK

THE Clinton Administration, like the Bush and Reagan governments before it, has proved capable of warfare with zero American casualties.

But Grenada, Libya, Lebanon, “”Desert Storm”, Somalia, and Yugoslavia — these are not examples of classic warfare with classic victories.

That is because the US command failed to convince either the President or the population that victory was worth dying for.

American generals who think victories are worth dying for do not survive in their command posts for very long.

These have been obvious to the Chinese, who believe that the outcome of Nato’s war against Yugoslavia might have been very different if the Russian leadership had not capitulated to Washington at the first shot.

Of course, if Mr Primakov had not been dismissed, and if Mr Yeltsin had not promised not to reinforce the Serbs, well then, the former would be president today and Mr Putin nothing more than a policeman.

For this outcome, Mr Clinton and Mr Strobe Talbott, his Russian policy adviser, deserve credit.

It is a credit Mr Putin has managed to embarrass those two into acknowledging, if not openly.

But now for Taiwan, one of the last undone tasks of the Chinese revolution and a better investment for Russian military skill than the war in Chechnya.

As Chinese politicians realise, reintegration of Taiwan — however bad for business it might be in the short run — has the potential for solidifying Mr Jiang’s power, and that of his regional and party supporters in the foreseeable future.

Victory, with or without war, would transform China’s effective place in the world. It would also reinforce Russia’s determination to halt the Nato alliance’s movement eastwards.

This is the stuff of the coming conversations of the two leaders.

And if they agree on a common strategic line, as well as on common tactics to achieve it, there is one additional percept their communiques will convey.

It is Confucius again.

“”One who compromises too much,” he said, “”is truly the one who destroys virtue.”

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