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A Crisis That Beijing Really Needed

April 15, 2001|Ross Terrill | Ross Terrill is the author of "Mao" and "Madame Mao." His next book will be "The New Chinese Empire."

BOSTON — What an unnecessary crisis, you would think. The shape of Wednesday's (limited) resolution could be seen from the start: China would digest the secrets of the U.S. surveillance plane, but return its 24-person crew. Instead of being dragged out over 11 days, with the resulting rise of emotion, it should have remained a fleeting incident.

Maybe Washington could have avoided any publicity from the start. Still, the Bush administration did keep its response to the detention of the crew low-key. No threats were made. No timetable was set. The "very sorry" wording in the letter that ended the crisis, both appealing and shrewd (for it was not an apology), could have come a week earlier, but President George W. Bush reached his goal by being firm, yet, in the end, gracious.

It was Beijing that turned a technical mishap into a trans-Pacific Beijing opera. The Chinese party-state, for which playing the card of patriotic indignation is close to irresistible, stretched the incident out, picturing itself as the aggrieved state. We must understand that the Hainan island saga was a necessary crisis for Beijing. That does not mean the Chinese caused the incident.

The midair collision was 99% likely an accident. Probably the Chinese fighter jet came far too close to a plane that was outside China's air space. At the same time, we do not yet know all the facts. President Jiang Zemin says China has "ample proof" that the U.S. plane caused the collision. He may yet produce it. In recent years, the U.S. military has not lacked cases of force misused, bad human errors and mechanical failures.

Still, the only alternative to viewing the collision as essentially an accident is the 1% possibility that Wang Wei, the pilot of the doomed fighter jet, was a daredevil who crossed the borderline into heroic (and disruptive) suicide, on his own or a military clique's behalf.

Yet, in the days following the collision, we saw an astonishing display of the rituals, fears, power-hunger and high sense of purpose of the Chinese regime. This Beijing opera was not about the tragic loss of Wang's life, but about the would-be glory of the Chinese state.

The Communist regime is galled by its weakness in the face of Uncle Sam. It is our planes that hum around the rim of China; the Chinese air force cannot do the same off the coast of California. Disgusted that there is but one superpower, and that it is not China, Beijing needs time to develop the muscle appropriate for China's high self-image.

The best policy during the interim is to demonize the "wolves," "Hitlerites" and "hegemonists" (that's us) who block the path between China and its glorious future. With this China, it is difficult to have a rich relationship, let alone former President Bill Clinton's "strategic partnership."

Mysterious bad luck stalked the entire incident. The two Chinese fighter jets shadowing the U.S. plane "did not notice" they were nestling too close. The mayday signal from the U.S. plane to the airport on Hainan island "was not heard." No trace of pilot Wang has been found.

Far from mysterious was Beijing's posturing. To say a crippled plane making an emergency landing has "violated China's air space" is like saying a sick old man who collapses in the street has damaged the sidewalk. The delay and constant irritations over allowing U.S. diplomats to meet with the 24 crew members helped turn a technical incident into a diplomatic crisis.

"If you have done something wrong," said Sun Yuxi, the foreign-ministry spokesman, "you should first of all apologize." Before an investigation of all the facts? This hectoring talk is more suitable to a Ming Dynasty emperor addressing the barbarians of the Inner Asian steppe than to the foreign ministry of a modern nation.

Bush's refusal to apologize might reverse the tendency to stroke Beijing's feathers and think the world is coming to an end if Beijing gets "angry," an attitude that marked some of the Clinton years. The atmosphere of U.S.-China policy needed to be changed, whether this incident had occurred or not. China is not a Ming vase, deserving of special handling, but one nation among many others.

The Hainan island saga reflected the rising military power of China in maritime East Asia. So far, however, the Chinese military is not as accustomed to the surveillance and monitoring pas de deux as the Soviet Union and the United States became with each other. More worrying, China, day by day, elevated state considerations over human-social considerations.

It declined U.S. help in searching for Wang, the missing pilot. It then built Wang up to mythic proportions. He was a lamb mauled by the wolves of imperialism, rather than a careless pilot who made a mistake. Never reported, Beijing also put at risk the peace of mind of tens of millions of ordinary Chinese in nearby Guangdong and Fujian provinces whose economic and social lives are interdependent with the money, music, sport and technology of the "wolves" of imperialism.

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