Quick action needed to mend U.S.-China breach, analysts say

China's detention of plane and crew could influence U.S. arms sales to Taiwan

April 03, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The collision of a U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet Sunday is the latest in a series of recent irritants between the countries, but it is not too late for diplomats on both sides to prevent the situation from developing into a major breach, foreign policy analysts said.

"It's not a crisis yet," said James R. Lilley, U.S. ambassador to China during the first Bush administration. "It can be managed so it will be an issue that will disappear. But the more it goes on, the more I get concerned that it will come into a crisis."

The next day or two will be crucial. If China acknowledges the crash as an accident and quickly releases the Navy's EP-3E Aries II plane and its crew of 24, Washington and Beijing can return fairly quickly to their normal relationship of wary engagement, analysts say. But continued detention of the crew and aircraft would be interpreted by Washington as a provocative act.

Such a move would anger congressional hard-liners and almost certainly generate a stronger response from the White House than President Bush's statement yesterday that he was "troubled" by Beijing's stance, China specialists said.

An increasingly exasperated Joseph W. Prueher, U.S. ambassador to China, gave a possible foretaste of Washington's next phase of rhetoric late yesterday when he called Beijing's behavior "inexplicable and unacceptable, and of grave concern."

A harder stance by the United States could, in turn, prompt Beijing to respond, casting a new shadow over U.S.-China relations.

"The irony of this whole thing is that this development is going to strengthen the skeptics of the relationship in both societies," said David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

"China's hard-liners look at this and say, `Hey, it's not going to be possible to have good relations, so give the defense establishment more resources. And, of course, we hear echoes of that in the United States."

The impasse on the island of Hainan, in southern China, is Bush's first major foreign policy test, challenging him to walk the fine line between giving Beijing a face-saving way to surrender the aircraft and demanding an immediate end to what U.S. officials see as an intolerable situation.

The incident occurs amid intense debate within the Bush administration over whether to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.

Beijing has repeatedly warned the United States not to grant Taiwan's request to buy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers outfitted with the advanced Aegis battle management system, which can simultaneously track and destroy 200 targets. Vice Premier Qian Qichen, who met with Bush in the White House last month, has indicated that such a sale would increase the chance of military conflict between China and Taiwan.

China may view the advanced Aries spy plane and its crew as bargaining chips to be used in an attempt to dissuade Bush from selling the Aegis radar and anti-missile system to Taipei, analysts said. Bush is expected to make the decision in the next few weeks.

"The Chinese might try to use this to gain leverage on some other issues," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy specialist at the Cato Institute in Washington. "And that game could also be played by the United States," he added, suggesting that Washington could quietly promise not to proceed with Aegis sales if Beijing releases the aircraft and crew.

Yesterday, though, U.S. officials and independent China watchers seemed inclined to view Beijing's slow response to the midair collision as the normal product of a ponderous bureaucracy, not as the opening gaze in an international stare-down.

"It is true that on occasion it can take some time for the Chinese government to decide what it wants to do," said a Bush administration official. "But we certainly want the Chinese to respond to our request" to return the plane and crew.

Whatever China's motives, the detention of the plane and crew could influence debate within the administration on arming Taiwan.

Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Associated Press yesterday that he had not yet made a recommendation to Bush on the potential Aegis sale. The decision, he added, will hinge on "how the Chinese are acting."

Arms sales to Taiwan have been perhaps the most sensitive issue dividing the United States and China in recent weeks. But a range of differences has harmed bilateral relations and added volatility to a situation with the spy plane that would be delicate under any circumstances.

In China, the incident has stirred memories of the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the Kosovo campaign two years ago. That attack was regarded by many Chinese as intentional, and symbolic of what they see as Washington's determination to thwart Beijing's ambitions as a great power.

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