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A Bump in the Sky Heard Around the World

April 08, 2001|Robert A. Manning

WASHINGTON — It was a diplomatic impasse that resembled a bad imitation of a Tom Clancy Cold War novel. But rather than a showdown between two nuclear-tipped superpowers, the political standoff between China and the United States over the collision of a U.S. spy plane and Chinese fighter jet offered a troubling new political symbolism: a rising China and a pre-eminent superpower literally--and figuratively--bumping up against each other's interests in the Pacific. Such stark symbolism may be a metaphor for the entire relationship.

The standoff over the air collision came even before President George W. Bush had time to take a deep breath and craft a China policy, let alone get all his advisors in tow. It also followed accumulating irritants already clouding a fragile relationship: China's assistance to Iraq in building fiber-optic capabilities in defiance of U.N. sanctions; a Chinese military defector; the arrests--one allegedly for spying--of U.S.-based academics last week; and an imminent U.S. decision on a controversial arms-sale package to Taiwan.

The aerial incident, and the manner in which it was handled, reveal much about suspicion, misperception and domestic political imperatives on both sides. Washington fears that a Chinese military buildup will lead to an attempt to "reunify" Taiwan by force, which is one reason why U.S. spy planes are working in the area. Beijing fears that growing U.S. support and sympathy for democratic Taiwan will lead to U.S. military intervention in a conflict. And where the U.S. sees its reconnaissance and surveillance activities as routine behavior, Beijing sees them as provocative.

The spy plane was on one of those routine surveillance and reconnaissance runs in the South China Sea. Its targets were Chinese radar and communications facilities, missile bases and other military activity. Both Washington and Beijing agree that the collision occurred in international airspace, some 70 miles from Chinese territory. But Chinese President Jiang Zemin raised the stakes when his government blamed the U.S. and demanded that Washington "bear full responsibility" for the collision, in which China lost a plane and a pilot.

The most likely explanation for the collision--that one of China's "top guns" made a mistake while flying underneath the lumbering U.S. spy plane--is not one a regional military commander would want to concede to the political leadership in Beijing. The chain of deceit may be one reason why Jiang demanded a U.S. apology. Just like in the U.S., where rival policymakers see China either as a growing market or as a growing security threat, hawks in the Chinese military and security services probably saw little virtue in being "soft" on the Americans. After all, Bush has said that unlike former President Bill Clinton, who spoke of China as a "strategic partner," he regards Beijing as a strategic competitor. That doesn't necessarily mean it's an adversary. France is a strategic competitor, Japan an economic competitor. But Bush has yet to define what he means by his choice of words.

Even before the collision, Beijing was nervous that Bush would sell a generous and high-powered supply of arms to Taiwan. China starts from a large sense of grievance, aggravated by events like the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. It is likely that one reason for the initial tough talk out of Beijing was its desire to avoid appearing weak and vulnerable, as Beijing's leaders were perceived to be in the aftermath of their embassy's destruction, an event that reinforced their fears of U.S. power.

In emergency Politburo meetings after the air collision, China's leadership was reportedly divided, which may explain its slowness to respond to U.S. requests to release the 24 crew members of the American spy plane. But other recent developments--the arrest of the U.S.-based academics, the crackdown against the Falun Gong spiritual qigong movement, the leak of "the Tiananmen Papers," which purportedly reveal internal discussions leading up to the June 4, 1989, massacre of democratic dissidents, and a political succession in which Jiang Zemin is expected to retire by 2003--also affect the mood of Beijing's leaders, not to mention concerns about growing unemployment and unrest as China's economy slows and corruption festers.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S.-China relations have lost their overriding strategic rationale and have become a wild political roller-coaster ride. Odd coalitions--like conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the AFL/CIO and consumer advocate Ralph Nader joining forces to oppose normal trade status for China--have sprung up.

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