Speaking softly with China

Crisis management: U.S. personnel to be returned, but the spy plane dispute simmers over a lower flame.

April 12, 2001

THE UNITED STATES did not apologize for spying on China from air space over waters claimed by China as its exclusive economic zone, and presumably won't.

China agreed to release the 24 captured U.S. personnel as a humanitarian gesture and not as a resolution of the dispute.

Wang Wei, dead in the South China Sea, is a hero and martyr of legendary proportions to the Chinese nation, but in U.S. eyes he is a reckless hotdog pilot who brought about his own death.

The United States and China will discuss these and other differences starting a week from today. The troubling incident of the EP-3E plane crash over the South China Sea was not resolved. Rather, it was contained by yesterday's diplomatic ritual, and not allowed to take over relations at too high a cost to both sides' interests.

The American people will be happy to see their 24 service personnel coming home in good health and spirits. They are no longer hostages to the dispute, though their plane still is. The Chinese intelligence services are not through examining it yet. In that respect, the incident has been a huge gain for China.

Otherwise, it has been deleterious. It was defused just before grass roots movements in this country could provoke a substantial boycott of Chinese consumer goods. Emotions have been higher among China's people, at some risk to China's own commercial and diplomatic interests.

The world has noted that the collapse of the Soviet bloc fueled long-suppressed nationalisms in former Communist European countries, often to their own harm. A similar effect is at work in China.

The Chinese people, who might have regarded Americans as their World War II allies, instead saw themselves as victims of 19th-century colonialism and not about to take more. Beijing hardliners who helped to churn up such sentiments may regret a limited ability to calm them.

Sino-American talks will resume next week on such issues as continued reconnaissance flights and return of the damaged EP-3E. Though military brass have been driving China's policy over the past 12 days, they may have to defer to national interests such as trade, membership in the World Trade Organization, Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics and attracting foreign investment.

The nuances of this affair and the concerns of China's smaller neighbors suggest that the U.S. presence in East Asia may be in for some redefinition, but not reduction any time soon.

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