Thankfully, the clash between Washington and Beijing over the downing of a US reconnaissance plane off Hainan Island never spiraled out of control like the Chinese jet that buzzed the EP-3E. On Whidbey Island, Washington, where the US crew is based, people broke out the yellow ribbons, but Administration spokespeople carefully avoided the term “hostage.” Although George W. Bush jumped out of the blocks with harsh words that sounded like leftover campaign rhetoric, he commendably cooled it, silenced his hawks and gave diplomacy a chance.
The successful resolution of the spy plane impasse underscores an important principle: Diplomacy must be paramount in the contentious US relationship with China, whether it is a question of releasing detainees, easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait or confronting the Chinese on workers’ rights.
What does not augur well for future diplomacy is the rising chorus of demands to punish the Chinese. A series of flash points in US-China relations loom–arms sales to Taiwan, most-favored-nation status, Beijing’s bid for the Olympic Games, missile defense systems. The Pentagoners in search of a reliable threat and the conservatives who cast China as the new communist Antichrist are agitating to sanction, contain and undermine the regime (see Michael T. Klare, “‘Congagement’ With China?” April 30).
A reckless Chinese pilot may well have been at fault in the spy plane collision, but that’s not the main point. The incident illustrates the larger danger of increasing military confrontations impelled by both sides. Conservative commentator Edward Luttwak writes in the Los Angeles Times that in the Clinton Administration’s waning days, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific, accelerated electronic intelligence flights on his own initiative. And when the US plane was downed, Blair proposed that the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk sail toward the Chinese coast; this was fortunately rejected as too provocative. Such actions point up the danger of military-driven policy replacing civilian control. China is not a military power and won’t be for another decade, so why play into the hands of Chinese army hawks with more US intelligence flights or advanced arms sales to Taiwan?
China and the United States must work to reduce military confrontations. They should move away from bilateral slanging matches and toward greater use of multilateral regional forums. Unilaterally, the United States should ground the intelligence planes. We do need intelligence about China–but not the kind gathered by spy planes. We need a better understanding of the strains and struggles within the Chinese government. We need to understand public opinion, such as that expressed on the Internet (where anti-American feelings are vented these days), which can influence the leadership. We need more exchanges–not just military to military but people to people, institute to institute–to weave a wider web of understanding and respect between the two nations. (China’s arrest of three Chinese-American scholars is a setback to such exchanges. The arrests, like right-wing demagogy about Chinese espionage in this country, only fuel distrust.)
Similarly, the next shopping cart of arms for Taiwan should not include Aegis-equipped destroyers or other advanced weapons that might encourage a precipitate move toward independence by Taiwan. The democratic government deserves continued US support in the international arena, but Washington should stick to the ambiguous one China, two China formula that has allowed both countries to gradually build deeper economic and political ties.
How the Bush Administration handles Taiwan and other issues in the weeks and months ahead will determine whether the Hainan Island incident will be remembered as a model for resolving US-China disputes or as the pretext that triggered an East Asian cold war and a nuclear arms race.