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CREW'S RETURN | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush Gets High Marks for Low-Key Approach

Diplomacy: In contrast to his recent predecessors, the president used a hands-off managerial style during standoff. Foreign policy experts praise effort.

April 13, 2001|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush's handling of his first foreign policy challenge contrasted sharply with the style of his recent predecessors, but served him very well and may have fixed the character of his tenure.

Unlike President Clinton, Bush did not engage in high-profile personal diplomacy. And unlike his father, Bush did not make a series of personal phone calls to acquaintances in the Chinese leadership.

Instead, he set a tone that gave Beijing the chance to end the dispute gracefully while leaving the tough negotiations to aides.

In a statement Thursday welcoming the return of the 24-member crew of a damaged U.S. spy plane that landed in southern China, triggering an 11-day standoff, Bush said there almost certainly will be more disputes with Beijing down the road. But, he said, "I will approach our differences in a spirit of respect."

With growing Chinese anger toward America and a festering distrust of Beijing in the United States--especially among some leaders of Bush's Republican Party--the standoff was a stern test of that spirit of respect. The impasse could easily have spun out of control, damaging a relationship that has paid economic dividends for both countries.

That it did not escalate won the president high marks on Capitol Hill and from foreign policy experts.

Bush said nothing in public for almost 24 hours after the Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft made an emergency landing at a military airfield on Hainan island following a collision with a Chinese warplane. When he did speak, he demanded the return of the plane and its crew.

But he soon decided that tough talk would only aggravate the situation. For the rest of the standoff, Bush used decidedly temperate language. He even pressured Republicans on Capitol Hill to hold back, urging China's detractors to refrain from trying to turn the incident into a morality play meant to show the dangers of dealing with Beijing.

Shortly after the accident, John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, described the plane crew as "prisoners." The term was considered so incendiary that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called Warner and asked him to retract the statement. In a later interview, Warner was asked whether he considered the Americans "hostages" and carefully replied that he preferred to describe them as being "detained."

William Taylor, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, said he would give Bush an A-minus.

"The minus comes from the first response by Bush," he said. "It didn't have to be a demand that our plane and pilots be returned. It could have been couched in much softer terms.

"I have to believe that [Secretary of State] Colin L. Powell and [National Security Advisor Condoleezza] Rice got the upper hand on this and said, 'Let's back off,' " Taylor said. "They got advice from people who know China well. And they got it right. Both sides come out looking like winners to their own people."

Bush played a very low-key role compared with recent presidents in similar situations. He made regular public statements, but he avoided most of the crisis atmosphere that has been on display in the past. He continued with his normal schedule.

Nevertheless, a senior State Department official said Bush was "very involved" in the administration's effort to draft a statement that would be acceptable to the Chinese.

The standoff with the Chinese provided the first real test in international diplomacy of Bush's hands-off managerial style. It also afforded the first illustration of what Bush meant when he spoke during last year's election campaign about establishing a "humble" foreign policy.

In his October debate with then-Vice President Al Gore, Bush outlined his approach to other countries: "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."

The concept of a humble superpower may have seemed absurd to some at the time.

But on Thursday, Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington and a former White House expert on Asia, said, "I thought we saw a humble foreign policy" when Bush gave the Chinese an opportunity to end the stalemate without having to knuckle under to superior U.S. military power.

Beijing agreed to release the crew after receiving a carefully worded letter from the Bush administration saying that the U.S. was "very sorry" for the apparent death of the Chinese jet pilot and for the crippled EP-3 having landed in China without express permission.

The final draft of the letter was negotiated word by word with Chinese officials. But earlier in the dispute, the administration tried to find a formula acceptable to Beijing by trying out concepts in public.

On April 3, two days after the accident, China agreed to allow U.S. diplomats to visit the crew. In response, Powell and Rice decided that the secretary of State should express regret at the Chinese pilot's death, a senior department official said.

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