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For U.S. and China, the Looking Glass Yields Disparate Views of Accident

Standoff: Cultural and historical differences are factors that shape each nation's assessment of the stakes involved.


WASHINGTON — The standoff between China and the United States has as much to do with disparate cultures and histories as with spy craft and modern aviation. As a result, psychology is proving as important as diplomacy in crafting a resolution to the drama that began when two aircraft collided over the South China Sea, stranding 24 Americans and probably killing a Chinese pilot.

And the stakes are higher than they might appear, according to China experts and former U.S. officials. The outcome may well determine whether the budding era of globalization has matured enough to avoid the "clash of civilizations" expected by some experts, or whether this kind of run-in, exacerbated by different self-images and world views, will recur among diverse societies for years to come.

The differences even affect how last Sunday's crash is viewed.

"Life in America is a new story, while in China, life is part of a long-running tale. So for us, the act of bumping into someone is an act of the moment. For the Chinese, bumping into someone is bumping into all that went before him. And that's a long time," said Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington and a National Security Council staffer during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

The United States is the mightiest nation on Earth. With missionary zeal, it has held out its political and economic system to the world. Its technology has defined progress. Its markets determine trade patterns.

It views China as the last major Communist nation, a nuclear power and the most significant threat to world stability. So it uses its assets, including surveillance planes, to constantly monitor that threat.

China is the world's most populous nation, with a culture dating back more than three millenniums. Its technology led to innovations ranging from gunpowder to printing long before the Gutenberg Bible. Its Confucian traditions provided one of the world's earliest philosophies and a moral code that, like its language, forms the basis for many that followed in Asia.

It views the United States as a brash upstart, barely more than 200 years old, the leader of a Western bloc of nations whose intervention in China in the 1800s led to the Asian nation's greatest decline in power. It regards American spy planes flying 5,000 miles from their own shores as a menacing and unwarranted continuation of 150 years of foreign meddling. So it dispatches its fighters to send exactly that signal.

Nations' Fundamental Differences Play Role

For both countries, everything that has unfolded in the last week has its roots in those fundamental differences.

"Americans are forward-looking. They don't get hung up on historical events, and the collective memory is short," said Min Xin Pei, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"But for China, the glory lies in the past. That's why, when they look at a major international incident, they conjure up ghosts of the past that appear to be haunting, distressing and reminiscent of a time [when] China suffered quite brutally at the hands of foreign powers."

Although China was never fully colonized, it was divided into different spheres of influence with enclaves subject to foreign laws, not Chinese laws, noted Kenneth Lieberthal, the National Security Council staff director on Asia during the Clinton administration and now a University of Michigan political scientist.

"During that same period, the United States went from being an agricultural country that meant nothing in the world to a superpower," Lieberthal said.

The two nations' starkly different world views help explain their opposing perspectives on how to respond to the spy plane incident and whether a U.S. apology is warranted.

The United States views its actions through the prism of legality and culpability, Lieberthal said. Washington says it had a legal right to fly over international waters off China's coast. It feels no need to defend its surveillance flights.

Issuing a formal government apology would imply accepting responsibility for the midair collision as well as all that would entail in terms of financial compensation and international law, analysts say. Washington does not believe that there is enough evidence, the kind that would stand up in an American court, to make that determination. And an apology in this case might also set an expensive, and perhaps dangerous, precedent for future incidents.

China views the incident through a prism that places less emphasis on legality. What special privilege, it asks, gives the United States the right to dispatch planes to spy on another country, with no real provocation?

"It may have a legal right, but it still rankles morally," Lieberthal said. "This reflects China's legacy. In Confucian society, people rule by virtue and by being morally superior."

China views the apology issue from the perspective of a victim and of a national tradition that emphasizes harmony.

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