U.S.-Chinese relations enter a tense period

Test for Bush: The challenge is to use the downed airplane to craft relations, not lose control.

April 07, 2001

THE BUSH administration must develop long-term relations with China that are in the U.S. national interest -- and then try to use such incidents as the seized airplane and crew on Hainan Island to help achieve, rather than obstruct, the desired result.

The administration earns high marks for speaking with one voice. It is not helped by a few members of Congress mouthing off. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been authoritative and President Bush disciplined. The president deserves national support.

China, too, must look to its long-term interests in a relationship with the United States. Demanding a U.S. apology for the dangerous antics of a Chinese aerial cowboy was anachronistic.

Chinese public opinion, to the extent it exists, is no doubt indignant. But U.S. technical surveillance of Chinese power by airborne ears and satellite eyes is legal, routine and a tribute to China's awesome importance.

The most difficult part of the relationship is China's bellicosity as a regional power contradicting U.S. commitments to the security of China's neighbors. In particular, China's threats to Taiwan, combined with its missile and naval buildup, cause alarm.

China, in turn, is made anxious by prospective U.S. sales of defensive arms to Taiwan that might nullify the intimidation value of China's buildup and raise the stakes of the arms race.

China must have been tempted to treat downed U.S. personnel as bargaining chips against the U.S. sale to Taiwan of Aegis-equipped destroyer ships, the core of a potential theater missile defense. Washington must spurn such a trade-off, while dangling one involving the Aegis system and China's offensive buildup.

That China seized and examined state-of-the-art hardware from the Navy EP-3E surveillance plane is taken for granted. That is how the game is played.

The dismaying part is that rules of the game -- in which top brass of the two countries have been in friendly contact since the Reagan administration -- were not spelled out down to the pilot level.

Sino-American relations are deeply established. In the middle of this crisis, Lt. Wang Zhizhi of the People's Liberation Army basketball team took the floor for his new club, the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Association, to roars of approval from Dallas fans. And the Pentagon delayed bidding on contracts for the U.S. Army's new berets, lest a Chinese firm prove the low bidder.

Bringing back the Cold War with this incident would harm U.S. and Chinese interests. President Jiang Zemin and President Bush each said as much. Neither of them should let a hot-dog pilot drag their nations into turbulence.

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