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Crisis Forces Bush Team to Speed Up Decisions on China Policy


WASHINGTON — The sudden crisis over an American spy plane is forcing the Bush administration to make decisions about its policies toward China and the rest of Asia far earlier than it had planned.

"I have to believe the administration really wishes this [crisis] hadn't come upon them that soon," said Jonathan Pollack, head of strategic research at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.

In recent weeks, senior administration officials have said privately that the Bush team would make obligatory short-term decisions on China but not focus on formulating a longer-term policy until the fall, when President Bush is scheduled to make his first trip to Asia since taking office.

Administration officials also hoped they could avoid getting the United States embroiled in domestic Chinese politics, rising Chinese nationalism and the choice of a new Chinese leadership at a Communist Party congress next year.

All those hopes are being called into question by Sunday's midair collision of a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.

The incident raises a host of questions about the United States' China policy: To what extent should China be considered an adversary? Will the administration be able to reach a working accommodation with the leadership in Beijing? How does this administration reconcile the often-conflicting interests of trade and investment in China, human rights and democracy, and military and security issues?

U.S.-China relations were already being tested in recent weeks by the disclosure that Chinese security officials have detained at least two U.S.-based scholars of Chinese descent. U.S. officials say the scholars were engaged in legitimate research; China has suggested that they were spying.

The aircraft incident has policy implications that extend well beyond China.

For example, the spy plane took off from an American base in Japan, where the U.S. military presence is already a sensitive issue. Now, the Japanese public will be reminded of the awkward fact that, for years, the United States has been carrying out spy missions along the Asian mainland from Japanese soil.

"My belief has been that the Japanese turn a blind eye to these [U.S.] reconnaissance flights--and unchallenged, the Japanese can live with that," said Paul Giarra, a former Pentagon specialist on Japan. "But the Japanese will hear from the Chinese about this [plane incident], I presume."

The unexpected China crisis erupted before the administration has even put working-level officials in place for Asia.

Although Bush selected James A. Kelly, a former Reagan administration official, a month ago to be the assistant secretary of State for East Asia, Kelly hasn't been formally nominated yet. The Pentagon and National Security Council are similarly still in the process of hiring Asia experts.

Recently, one working-level career foreign service officer whose job carries over from administration to administration noticed Secretary of State Colin L. Powell carrying a huge stack of briefing papers about Asia and joked that Powell was being given too much reading.

"Do you realize that there's nobody [on the job] between me and you?" Powell is said to have replied.

Until a couple of weeks ago, the administration's top officials for foreign policy--Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice--were forced to make all interagency policy decisions on their own in meetings held roughly three times a week.

Recently, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage has joined Powell, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has joined Rumsfeld. As a result, some decision-making can now be delegated by Cabinet officials to an interagency "deputies committee."

"In terms of handling a crisis like this [plane incident], there are enough people in place [in the administration]," said former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord.

However, Lord noted, "to staff out a full strategy for dealing with the Chinese over the next four years, you need to have that whole upper and middle level of people in place in the government."

Bush took office after pledging during his campaign to come up with a new Asia policy--one that would emphasize America's enduring relationship with its allies Japan and South Korea.

The crisis with China is merely the latest in what looks like a remarkable string of bad luck and surprises in dealing with Asia.

Within weeks after Bush was sworn in, a U.S. submarine hit and sank the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru near Hawaii. Top Bush administration and U.S. military officials have since apologized.

Also in February, a private e-mail leaked out in Japan in which Marine Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, the chief of U.S. forces on Okinawa, referred to Japanese officials there as "nuts and a bunch of wimps."

Hailston also hurriedly apologized. But the brouhaha was potentially damaging to negotiations over the future of U.S. bases on Okinawa, which houses 26,000 of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan.

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