China relations require top priority, propriety

April 18, 2001|By Michael Swaine

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- The 11 days of tension between the United States and China, despite its resolution, could still severely damage Sino-American relations. In the category of lessons learned, the spy plane incident underscores the importance of five key principles that should be observed in any future altercation.

First, China cannot be treated as a second-order policy issue.

Some Bush administration officials have suggested that Washington pay less attention to Beijing and more to improving ties with U.S. friends in Asia. But the often tense relationship with China can create situations that threaten regional stability. Understanding and dealing with China demands at least equal time and energy.

The Chinese should recognize that, despite their domestic political need to show toughness toward the United States, they risk greater damage to their core interests of internal stability and authority by unnecessarily provoking Washington.

Second, avoid striking public postures that apportion blame or innocence or suggest what China needs to do to resolve a dispute, especially when the facts are in doubt or incomplete.

China's uncompromising stance toward the air collision was virtually guaranteed when U.S. officials declared that the surveillance aircraft had done nothing wrong, blamed China for the collision and demanded the prompt return of the 24-person crew.

Even if justified, public delivery of these claims was taken as a direct challenge to Chinese dignity and sovereignty. In response, Beijing was forced to take a tough public line to show that it would not be intimidated by the "hegemonistic" Americans.

But China painted itself into a corner by sticking to the ridiculous public position that the United States had clearly caused the accident and must issue a formal apology. Given the predictable rejection of this claim by the U.S. public, China's only hope for a way out was that the ultimate language provided by Washington could be spun to appear as an apology.

The Chinese media have attempted to do this, but few Chinese citizens will miss the point that their government lost on this central issue. If China had simply rejected the initial U.S. statement while calling for an investigation, it could have avoided a loss of face.

Third, don't persist in trading public statements and or engaging the president directly in an effort to pressure China. The Bush administration followed its initial blame game by using the president to publicly convey messages of growing firmness and impatience.

These almost surely reinforced Beijing's view that the United States was uninterested in Chinese complaints and was attempting to publicly pressure China into releasing the crew. Involving the president also raised the stakes. Interactions should have been conducted almost exclusively through diplomatic channels.

China committed its gravest error by giving the impression that it would only release the crew in return for a formal U.S. apology, thus making them de facto hostages. If, instead, it had stressed its initial claim that the crew was being detained solely as subjects in the investigation of the incident, China could have diminished American anger.

Fourth, the American public should understand that China's tough public rhetoric is intended as much for domestic consumption as it is to send a clear message of resolve to Washington.

Privately, the Chinese usually indicate -- eventually -- a willingness to negotiate a deal that falls short of their public posture. Fortunately, the Bush administration understood this essential distinction and was able to focus on the negotiations rather than the bombast.

Fifth, incidents such as this could become more common as China's capabilities increase, its fears regarding U.S. intentions grow and tension over Taiwan intensifies.

Troubling as this prospect is, our first response should not be punitive actions that could seriously damage U.S. interests and increase the chances of more serious conflict down the road.

Preferably, our priority should be an all-out effort to develop more effective military-diplomatic communications with China, the largest and fastest-growing nation on the planet. Given U.S. power and its own self-interests, China's priority should be the same.

Michael Swaine is a senior policy analyst at RAND specializing in Chinese military and foreign policy and the co-author of "Interpreting China's Grand Strategy," which was published last year.

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