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STANDOFF WITH CHINA: U.S. AIRCRAFT HELD

Beijing Seeks to Balance Tough Talk, Diplomacy

Asia: Efforts to assuage public while averting hostilities contrast with regime's handling of 1999 embassy bombing.

April 04, 2001|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — As leaders here decide how to respond to the collision Sunday between Chinese and U.S. military planes, the Communist regime finds itself faced with the delicate task of reconciling the demands of nationalism and diplomacy.

Beijing wants to find a middle ground that will prevent a flare-up of outright hostility between the two nations while satisfying Chinese officials, military leaders and citizens who are increasingly distrustful of the United States.

Analysts say the government's statements have reflected this tightrope walk, with a mix of measured indignation and aggressive rhetoric such as Beijing's assertion Tuesday that it has a right to inspect the crippled U.S. spy plane despite Washington's objections.

The search for a judicious combination of tough talk and discreet diplomacy differs sharply from the strident response here to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, which helped fuel violent anti-American protests throughout this nation.

"There was a lesson learned" from the handling of the NATO bombing, said Shen Dingli, a defense expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. That experience reinforced the need for Washington and Beijing to "try diplomacy first" before either side paints itself into a corner with unyielding language, Shen said.

So far, Chinese officials have insisted that the U.S. take full responsibility for the collision, which forced a U.S. EP-3 spy plane to make an emergency landing in southern China and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet to crash into the South China Sea. Over U.S. objections, the 24 U.S. crew members remain in custody on Hainan island. The Chinese pilot is missing and presumed dead.

"The Chinese side is the one that was victimized," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said Tuesday afternoon. He demanded a U.S. apology, a full investigation and a halt to U.S. surveillance flights close to China.

Beneath the outrage, however, are signs of temperance.

The official Chinese explanation of the incident, while pinning the blame on the EP-3, now acknowledges that the collision occurred in international airspace--albeit in an area China considers unacceptably close to its territory, about 65 miles southeast of Hainan.

Zhu, in a briefing for reporters Tuesday night, also said for the first time that the collision was not necessarily a deliberate act. China contends that the slow-moving, propeller-driven EP-3 veered into the path of the Chinese jet.

"I did not say whether this was intentional," he said, in response to a question on whether China would seek to prosecute the U.S. pilot.

Zhu's statement, an apparent softening of the official line, echoed an interview posted Tuesday on the Web site of the official New China News Agency, which suggested possible leeway in the interpretation of what happened.

"This collision was an accidental event," wrote He Dalong, vice director of the news agency's World Affairs Research Center.

He specifically rebuffed comparisons between the collision and the NATO bombing; many here believe that the latter was a premeditated attack on China. He added that he looks forward to a visit to Beijing by President Bush that is planned for October.

In general, Chinese media coverage of Sunday's collision has been mostly, though not entirely, free of the recriminations about U.S. "hegemonism" and arrogance that inflamed passions after the NATO bombing.

Edward Friedman, a China expert at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said Beijing's reaction has been more muted than might be expected given that a Chinese pilot was probably killed in the collision. Three Chinese died in the bombing of the embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.

"They've got a dead pilot right off their coast. . . . I don't see anything unrestrained, irrational or aggressive from the Chinese side at all," said Friedman, who is a frequent critic of Beijing's policies.

If the positions were reversed, Friedman noted, the response from the U.S. would likely be vociferous. "If the Cubans had done it to the Americans off the coast of Florida, what would American passions be?" he asked.

However, Friedman warned that a more moderate Chinese approach could spell problems for the Communist regime if it is seen by its own people as being too soft.

The government has encouraged nationalistic fervor in recent years but has found it a difficult beast to tame when a diplomatic dispute erupts, especially with Washington. Comments from the public such as this one, left in an Internet chat room, are typical: "Shoot down the stinking Americans."

Apparently afraid that such sentiment might spin out of control, Chinese Internet censors have removed some of the more vitriolic comments from chat rooms and electronic bulletin boards.

Recognizing the demands of public opinion, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said, "We have to give an explanation to the Chinese people."

The pull between a hard response and a more conciliatory approach reflects a wider debate within China's leadership over how to treat the U.S. and the West. Members of the Chinese military establishment have been known to advocate a tougher approach, while more reform-minded officials favor caution and conciliation.

The danger, analysts say, is that the hard-line view will win out in the current case, increasing Chinese belligerence and further alienating this nation from the U.S.

That could be a perilous course at a critical moment in relations between the two countries. Just around the corner lie important decisions in Washington on issues such as which weapons to sell to China's archrival, Taiwan, and whether to renew normal trading privileges for China this spring.

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