This article was published in the Detroit Free Press on April 5th, 2001. A different and much longer version was published in Iviews.com on April 3rd, 2001.
President George W. Bush is acting like a spoiled child, hurling insults toward China in an effort to get his high-tech “toy” back. Though his concern for the downed U.S. spy plane’s crew and need to protect the plane’s technology is understandable, even laudable, misinterpreting international law in order to make the United States look righteous will get him nowhere. It won’t help resolve this crisis or smooth long-term relations between the countries.
Furthermore, Bush’s public statements merely irritate the Chinese, who see themselves as victims of U.S. military dominance. When he says, “We have allowed the Chinese government to do the right thing. But now it is time for our servicemen and women to return home. And it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane,” the Chinese think, there go the Americans, trying once again to take charge of the world and make other countries look like aggressors by using the U.S. media to chastise them.
Since when has capturing spies become an illegal activity? Not only was the U.S. plane spying on China, it also caused damage to a Chinese aircraft seeking to intercept it and then landed in Chinese territory. The Bush administration is claiming that the plane is the sovereign territory of the United States and the Chinese must not board it, though intelligence reports indicate they’ve already done so.
Sovereign status extends only to embassies and diplomatic missions and does not include spy planes. It is like saying, “Hey, that CIA agent you arrested who was spying on you is really our ambassador to China and, therefore, you must not violate his diplomatic immunity by prosecuting him.”
The United States does not show the same respect for China when it routinely flies spy missions to listen electronically to Chinese military activities within China’s borders.
China will probably want to use the crew and the plane to extract some concessions from the United States, as well as peek at the aircraft’s sophisticated gadgetry. The aircraft itself is concrete proof of U.S. military presence in the region and in the eyes of the Chinese, further evidence of U.S. imperialism. While they will not use this to confront the United States, they will definitely seek concrete concessions. A possibility could be a U.S. promise to not sell weapons to Taiwan. The Chinese may even try to return the crew and keep the plane, which is an intelligence bonanza.
So far, the rhetoric out of China is not as shrill as it was when the United States accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Serbia. This suggests that the Chinese are interested in making a deal and avoiding confrontation. The Chinese are demanding a U.S. apology; this is necessary for them to prove to the international community that the United States is in the wrong.
The United States must try to make sure that it gets its plane and crew back with as little damage to diplomatic relations as possible. The United States government and the media must desist from demonizing China. It is not China’s fault that Americans spies were hanging out near Chinese borders.
Bush must be firm but also fair. The Chinese will respect that. It will gain the respect and approval of the international community. It will also be a positive step forward for the future. But bullying China will backfire and embarrass the United States internationally and hurt its interests in the region.
A promise to rethink relations with Taiwan and a sincere effort to negotiate rules of engagement with the Chinese military may resolve the crisis without much damage to U.S.-China relations.
As the Chinese economy expands, so will its military and its international aspirations. A lack of firmness in dealing with an expanding China will result in U.S. retrenchment in East Asia and significant reduction of U.S. influence in other critical regions like the Middle East and South Asia. Therefore, any appeasement of China is not healthy.
But firmness will have to be handled delicately. The present standoff is a real test for Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Can they balance firmness with fairness, power and wisdom?