In crisis, a chance at peace

Dialogue: The aircraft collision offers China and the United States an opportunity to stabilize relations. Opportunity in air crash crisis

April 08, 2001|By Calvin Chen

THE RECENT collision between an American surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter has given rise to an increasing sense of dread in Chinese-American relations. Observers on both sides say the episode has severely damaged an already volatile relationship and increased the potential for a dangerous military confrontation between the two nations.

There would not be a winner in a military clash, and cooler heads on both sides should prevail. Military action can be avoided if both sides recognize that the while the aerial collision was unfortunate, it nevertheless represents an opportunity to set Chinese-American relations on a more stable footing. It gives China and the United States a chance to clear away the dark cloud that looms between them by establishing new mechanisms for easing tensions, and more importantly, preventing them from occurring in the future.

Viewing this episode as a opening for peace and understanding rather than a test of resolve or credibility is by no means easy. Unfortunately, suspicions and misperceptions still hold sway at the highest reaches of both governments and have perhaps even been sharpened by the collision in disputed airspace over the South China Sea.

Hard-liners in the Chinese leadership, for example, view the U.S. surveillance flights as yet another instance of America's hostile, intrusive policy toward China, one that ultimately seeks to thwart China's ambitions at every turn, from their efforts to join the World Trade Organization, to their desire to play host to the Olympics, to their goal of reunifying with Taiwan.

In the United States, similar sentiments exist. Many conservatives here perceive the Chinese government as an intolerant, oppressive regime that is a rival at best and an enemy at worst, one that will wreak havoc throughout the region and the world if left unchecked. They are the "butchers of Beijing," as then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton once said, people with no regard for human rights or common decency. Unfortunately, such strident rumblings on both sides tend to not only inflame popular passions, but also drown out more reasoned voices of calm and restraint.

Herein lies the opportunity to reassess and move the relationship to firmer ground. Much can be gained by recognizing that sensitivities on both sides are rooted in history.

For China, its policies and behavior are a reflection of its prodigious efforts to overcome more than a century of weakness and humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. The following events still loom large in the Chinese mindset: the Opium Wars with Great Britain during the 19th century; the struggle with Japan during World War II in which more than 10 million Chinese perished; the Korean War, in which the Chinese fought against United Nations forces led by the United States; and the continuing question of Taiwan's status.

For the United States, its policies and behavior reflect its own historical experience, especially its ambivalence over an interventionist and an isolationist approach to world affairs. Furthermore, this has been complicated by the realization that the United States is facing a new world.

Time to adjust

While the United States remains the world's only superpower, it will have to adjust - as Ezra Vogel, a Harvard University professor, has aptly noted - "to the rise of a major power as England did when the United States spurted ahead at the end of the 19th century."

These are tumultuous changes, but not insurmountable blocks to better relations. This incident forces the United States and China to re-examine history and recognize that, despite our grievances and fears, our destinies have become closely intertwined.

Whether we like it or not, both nations have much to gain through continued exchange and interaction and much to lose should relations deteriorate. Neither side should allow the collision in the air to obscure this fact.

China and America have benefited enormously, for example, from expanding trade relations, especially over the past 20 years. China has experienced record economic growth that has resulted in unprecedented prosperity for Chinese citizens, while American companies have profited from jumping into the world's largest market.

And so far, we have only scratched the surface in terms of the potential for mutual economic benefit.

In fact, as China continues to make the transition to a market-based economy and should it succeed in joining the ranks of the World Trade Organization, we can expect to find and enjoy ever-expanding opportunities in manufacturing, services and beyond.

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