U.S. should deal gingerly with China

Complications: Downed spy plane, missiles aimed at Taiwan, scholars' arrests beset already tense relations.

April 03, 2001

BRINGING DOWN the U.S. EP-3 spy plane on Hainan island, despite the loss of a Chinese fighter plane and pilot, was a feat of derring-do and Cold War battle triumph for China. It was not the act of a strategic partner.

Aside from letting state-of-the-art surveillance hardware into adversarial hands, the incident compromised the bargaining relationship over weapons sales and arms control. The 24 U.S. crewmen, denied contact with the U.S. embassy, became bargaining chips.

This came at a time of growing paranoia by Beijing. The arrest of a Chinese-born U.S. citizen teaching business in Hong Kong, an expert in China's transition to capitalism, followed that of a U.S. permanent resident who researches women's and family issues in China.

As Beijing emerged from its Cold War shell a decade ago, it welcomed visits by overseas Chinese scholars. Now it is intimidating or frightening them, perhaps because their growing numbers frighten China's closeted rulers.

Sunday's EP-3 incident focused the Bush administration on its most important long-range foreign policy problem: dealing with that enormous country of burgeoning economic might and suspicious intentions that is not going away.

And so President Bush, who would have rather spent yesterday at a ballgame in Milwaukee, was huddling with his national security team. He then made a carefully worded statement professing to be "troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response" to a request for access to the plane and crew.

The big problem nearing decision is what weapons to sell to Taiwan to counter the build-up of missiles on the mainland aimed at the island. The goal should be to maintain stability. Taiwan's request to buy four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with Aegis radar looks like the start of a theater missile defense. The catch is that they could not be delivered for six years, perhaps ten, while China's missiles could fire tomorrow.

The goal of negotiations should be a trade-off, in which Washington would withhold the anti- missile defense if China would dismantle missiles. The downed plane and crew added to what Washington wants Beijing to concede. It is, however, just one event in a long and difficult relationship requiring unbroken attention.

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