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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

China's blunder is building

By Tom Plate

The spy plane drama may be moving toward a reasonable closure, but the road still looks too bumpy for comfort.

The Chinese complain about U.S. aerial espionage, as if they don't do the same to their neighbors. Washington acts as though the Chinese shouldn't feel wronged because, technically, their airspace wasn't violated. This all adds up to trans-Pacific hypocrisy, big time.

We expected China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and still negotiating for membership in the World Trade Organization, to treat this crisis like a savvy world power. We expected the Chinese to strip down the Navy EP-3 spy plane that made the emergency landing on its territory, condemn spying by America and then return the U.S. crew without putting Sino-U.S. relations in harm's way.

We expected the Americans — if only out of respect for the two dozen crew members and their relatives — to express profound and profuse regrets about the incident (no matter whose fault it was), and to express their deep concern to the relatives of the Chinese fighter pilot who allegedly bumped the U.S. plane, crashed into the South China Sea and is presumed dead.

We expected the Americans to agree to a series of high-level diplomatic discussions on safer aerial surveillance and to accept, realistically, that they will never again see this ill-fated aircraft — and to thank the Chinese for graciously agreeing to return the crew.

"That would be the nub of it," agreed a high-level U.S. government source involved in the crisis.

We would expect, too, that once the dust has settled — as it presumably will — both sides will have learned important lessons. It would be nice to believe that America has learned that other people don't like being spied on any more than we do. But spying does take place, and to the extent it reduces surprises, the practice is defensible.

True, technically speaking, the surveillance plane was not over China when the apparent midair collision occurred. But its electronic whiskers were well within China's borders, sweeping down over military installations with feline stealth.

And Beijing needs to learn that, whether it likes it or not, it is going to be judged in the court of world opinion. Sure, the Chinese government has had to endure the fallout at home for NATO's bombing of its Belgrade embassy in 1999. But how long will it take to work through these latest emotions and allow the U.S. crew to return home?

Be careful, Beijing: Every day those crew members remain your unwilling guests, a diplomatic blunder is building. What, after all, are your most important priorities? To continue to improve the economy and bring Taiwan into the fold.

But this standoff stands in the way of both. And it plays into Taiwan's hands.

The Bush administration will soon decide whether to allow Taiwan to purchase new armaments it has requested. Without the South China Sea standoff, that decision might have been made on merit alone — that is, on the basis of the appropriate level of new arms consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act.

Yet now, cagey Taiwanese — and who can blame them for quietly exploiting the moment? — can claim that the Bush administration is selling them less than they want because of some secret deal that accommodates Beijing.

Taiwanese who would exploit this situation are, of course, in tandem with mainland hard-liners who oppose President Jiang Zemin's policy of engagement with America.

"The Chinese actions are probably being driven by the People's Liberation Army and the security services," said one U.S. diplomat involved in the crisis. "These are China's most retrograde elements." If the U.S. crew is not released in the next week or so, the strong suggestion will be that Jiang is not really in charge.

There was always a degree of naivete to the Clinton administration's claim that it had begun to forge a strategic partnership with China — but just how naive wasn't exactly clear until last week. The debris — diplomatic and otherwise — is everywhere, and it will take enormous work to raise Sino-U.S. relations to acceptable levels of maturity.

Tom Plate, a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post, is a UCLA professor (web: www.asiamedia.ucla.edu).