THE PROCESS OF finding the Soviet Union, now Russia, a fair and stable place at the global strategic table has gone on for 30 years and is far from over. But the newer process of finding China such a place becomes increasingly sensitive and urgent. The quest is made so by the explosive pattern of China's ambitions and anxieties. It is bound to preoccupy Washington for an indefinite time.

At the moment, the Chinese are concerned lest American missile defense plans erode their own lesser missile capability and render them strategically vulnerable. They are right to worry about an eventual nonporous American missile shield. The United States should be prepared to listen carefully to China as Washington undertakes to negotiate (with Moscow) for a certain kind of missile defense. This shield should protect Americans from the less dangerous missiles of rogue states and terrorists. It should leave Russia, with a huge residual missile force, a workable deterrent. And it should take legitimate Chinese considerations into account as well.

This prickly task becomes even more difficult, however, as China flaunts its power. Which Chinese nuclear goals should be regarded as legitimate? To many Americans and Asians and others, China appears bent on challenging the United States and establishing a muscular new position across a broad swath of Asia and perhaps beyond. Beijing also appears determined to achieve Taiwan's reincorporation by intimidation -- including the eventual nuclear intimidation of the United States -- and even by forcible means. Shows of force, statements of expansive military aspirations and the unrelenting acquisition of new military technology serve these ends.

A note on technology: From its longtime high-tech military-supply relationship with Israel, China is now seeking the early-warning airborne radar that could provide new advantages in its drive to absorb Taiwan. The question of whether Israel has improperly shared restricted U.S. weapons know-how has arisen. It would be shocking if a dependency like Israel was seeking profit from making China a more effective challenger of Israel's, as well as Taiwan's, leading patron. The matter cries for clarity.

China's economic growth has doubtless prompted some part of its strategic ambition. But Taiwan remains the key consideration. A China confident that time is on its side in peacefully regaining Taiwan will inevitably incline to greater strategic cooperation with the United States. A China anxious about Taiwan's peaceful absorption -- as it now plainly is -- will become more assertive in its military and strategic reach.

The United States can help: by acting in good sense and good faith both to respect its Taiwan political pledges to China as well as its defense pledges to Taiwan, and by acting to protect its security interests diligently without crowding China gratuitously on missile defense and other issues. Finally, however, China's acceptance as a strategic partner by the United States and Asia depends upon the Chinese themselves.