Commentary: Lessons of a Crisis

The standoff is over, but the next months may be perilous

As U.S.-China crises go, it was one of the dumbest yet. After an 11-day standoff that received saturation media coverage, Beijing on Apr. 11 finally agreed to release 24 American crew members who had been detained when their damaged EP-3E Aries II aircraft made an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The diplomatic breakthrough: an expression of U.S. sorrow for the Chinese pilot killed in the accident 70 miles off China's shore, and a promise to investigate the mishap. It's the kind of compromise that two military powers with normal relations should have been able to resolve in hours.

In the coming weeks, both Washington and Beijing will be conducting careful postmortems on how this confrontation erupted in the first place and how to avoid future blowups. After all, with Washington preparing to debate such thorny issues as speeding up sales of advanced arms to Taiwan and China's trade status, the coming months are rife with opportunities for new clashes.

In Beijing, the latest episode underscored how poorly equipped the country's leaders are to deal coherently with unexpected events and how its belligerence can backfire. For his part, President Bush handled the actual crisis reasonably well, but he had clearly erred in the awkward first two months of his Administration by ratcheting up the tough talk against Beijing. Both sides have lessons to learn. Here are the key ones.


U.S. conservatives have long chafed at Washington's fuzziness about whether or not it is trying to contain China's rising military ambitions. By being timid about arming Taiwan, and trying to act like Beijing's friend, hawks have argued, Washington is only making matters worse by sending confusing signals on where it really stands. Why not be explicit, said the hawks: Say the U.S. welcomes more trade, but state clearly that China is a military rival while Japan and Taiwan are allies.

The Bush Administration tried to accommodate the right, but the EP-3E incident taught it a lesson: With China, it pays to be ambiguous. Once Bush hardened the rhetoric, China saw the situation as extremely threatening. When the spy-plane affair erupted, China's military was poised to lead a hysterical reaction.

It's time to go back to being a bit vague. On Taiwan, by not declaring whether the U.S. would or would not come to the island's aid, Washington has discouraged Taiwanese leaders from declaring independence--which would probably start a war. At the same time, the ambiguity has kept Beijing from taking extreme action against the island and given China's leaders the political cover they need at home to nurture better relations with the U.S.


While Beijing could probably have settled this dispute quickly if it had wanted to, it's clear that public opinion is playing a greater role in the response to the outside. Ordinary Chinese firmly believe China should be respected as a major power and that the death of their pilot should not be minimized. There would certainly have been anti-U.S. rallies over the spy plane if Beijing had allowed them, and China's Internet chat rooms have been humming with anti-American invective. China's internal problems feed the frustration. "With the economic downturn and lack of social equality, the Chinese people are dissatisfied," says one editor of an influential Chinese policy journal. "That means Beijing dares not do anything that goes against the popular will."

Even well-educated, English-speaking professionals in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, who tend to be liberals on economic reform, are upset at what they view as U.S. global hegemony and insensitivity. As the influence of public opinion increases in China, Washington should start taking it into account as it debates whether to renew Chinese normal trade status or to oppose openly China's 2008 Olympic bid. Popular outrage could erupt anytime.


China's military turned the accident into a crisis by claiming it was all the U.S. pilot's fault, by detaining the crew, and by digging in just as President Jiang Zemin tried to defuse the situation. "The military led China's leaders to miscalculate the impact on American public opinion," says Gerritt W. Gong, Asia director at Washington's Center for Strategic & International Studies.

It happens again and again. In 1996, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) went ballistic over democratic elections in Taiwan and staged threatening missile tests. The result: The U.S. sent aircraft carriers, President Lee Teng-hui won in a landslide, and the missile tests stopped.

Far from being the true powerbroker, the PLA often ends up getting slapped down as the leadership realizes how much damage the top brass is doing. China's behavior over the spy plane, for example, may well have hardened U.S. resolve to sell advanced destroyers and other weapons to Taiwan. To rein in the PLA, China must find a way to speak with one voice on foreign policy.


In the crisis, Beijing once again pressed its media to pump out misinformation. Official media reported that the U.S. plane was spying in Chinese air space and had caused the crash. And China's media censored American accounts of the accident and the U.S. offer to help find the missing Chinese pilot. Little wonder most Chinese are outraged. It may be too much to expect a free press in China anytime soon. But if Beijing truly wants better relations--and wants to avoid being forced into hard-line positions by public opinion--it has to give its people a less distorted picture.


The Chinese constantly remind U.S. visitors of their country's history of humiliation by colonial powers. So they seem to assume Americans will understand and forgive their outbursts. But the U.S. public is supersensitive on some issues, too, and the media will quickly blow incidents out of proportion. The use of U.S. personnel as bargaining chips quickly conjured up images of the Iran hostage saga, and yellow ribbons soon appeared on U.S. television. As the spy-plane drama dragged on, opinion polls quickly reported public outrage in the U.S. Add this to China's soaring trade surplus with the U.S. and even a boast by PLA brass that China can hit California with ballistic missiles, and it's easy to see why more Americans are regarding China as an enemy.


There is great reason to hope that China's foreign policy will eventually mature. But for the near future, more incidents like the spy-plane fracas are likely as China looks to flex its muscles and U.S. refuses to yield. It's time for both Washington and Beijing to realize that conflicts are a normal part of their relationship--and prepare accordingly.

By Dexter Roberts and Pete Engardio

With Paul Magnusson in Washington

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