The US and China need each other
The plight of the three Japanese hostages in Iraq has overshadowed Dick Cheney's visit to Tokyo. Now, with seven mainland labourers also taken captive there, the US vice-president faces a similar predicament when he arrives in Beijing today.
Every effort is being made to secure the rescue or release of the group from Fujian. There is reason for hope, since some hostages from other nations, such as South Korea and Britain, have already been freed. But the situation in Iraq is extremely dangerous and unstable. Negotiations for the release of the Japanese hostages have not yet proved successful.
There is no logical explanation for the targeting of Chinese civilians in Iraq. Unlike Japan, China has no troops in the country. The central government did not support the invasion of Iraq. And it had a friendly relationship with the government of Saddam Hussein.
The seizure of Chinese nationals, therefore, will not help the cause of the armed bands responsible for the recent wave of abductions. But the kidnappers do not operate on the basis of ordinary logic or reason. The logic of their actions is to foment chaos and turmoil. In such a climate, it seems, any foreigner is considered fair game.
The taking of hostages is being carried out as part of a wider uprising against the occupying forces in Iraq. That, however, cannot disguise the nature of the kidnappings. They are brutal acts of terrorism.
And that brings us back to Mr Cheney and his visit to Beijing. A shared interest in combating terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks has forged a closer, more constructive relationship between China and the US. The latest events in Iraq will, no doubt, remind both governments how important it is that they continue to strengthen that relationship - whatever the pressures may be.
Certainly, sources of tension have not been in short supply in the months since Premier Wen Jiabao's successful visit to Washington in December. China has continued to come under pressure over trade. This is to be expected during the run-up to the presidential election, as candidates and their supporters seek to make political capital out of concern over American job losses and China's trade surplus with the US.
But both governments have shown restraint. While refusing to budge on revaluing the yuan, the central government is taking steps to relax capital controls. Negotiations with America continue, and a recent visit to the mainland by a US Treasury team to provide technical co-operation on currency issues appears to have been a success. Further progress, it is hoped, will be made this month when Vice-Premier Wu Yi leads a delegation to the US for trade talks.
Taiwan is another issue on which the two sides hold divergent views. The Bush administration has been careful to stick to its support for the status quo. There has been no retreat from the opposition to Taiwanese independence expressed by Mr Bush during Mr Wen's visit. But US arms sales to Taiwan continue to concern Beijing. The matter is likely to be raised during this week's talks with Mr Cheney.
Recent rows over visa restrictions and human rights have followed the traditional pattern of tit-for-tat measures which have often characterised Sino-US relations in the past. But these are unlikely to stand in the way of longer-term aims.
Both governments know they can only gain from furthering engagement and developing an even closer strategic relationship. They need each other too much.
Their growing economic interdependence is only one factor. The mainland is relying on the US to help prevent moves towards independence in Taiwan. The US, meanwhile, needs China's help in seeking to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Then there is the question of terrorism. Events in Iraq have ensured this will feature prominently in the talks with Mr Cheney.