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China: Plane Incident Challenges Relations With U.S

  • Andrew Tully

Tension between the U.S. and China has been heightened because China has so far refused to release the American surveillance plane that made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan and its 24-member crew. Some analysts say the incident is part of seriously deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing. Others say the two governments have an opportunity to resolve the matter to both sides' benefit. Our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 5 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- China's holding of an American surveillance plane and its crew comes at a diplomatically sensitive time for the two countries.

Washington is considering selling sophisticated weapons and radar to Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province. The U.S. also has recently expressed concern about the growth of Beijing's military budget, and its assignment of technicians to help Iraq with its military radar.

Meanwhile, a senior Chinese military officer recently defected to the U.S., and Beijing has arrested one scholar visiting from the U.S. but who is a native of China. China also is holding two other U.S.-affiliated scholars -- one a full American citizen. And there is the continuing American concern about any Chinese role in North Korea's nuclear-weapons program.

American analysts have widely differing views of just how the incident involving the surveillance plane will be resolved. Some see dramatically worsening relations between the two countries. Others believe patience and a little flexibility can prevent a recurrence of Cold War bitterness.

And there is a middle ground, expressed by Bruce Dickson, the director of the Sigur Center for East Asian Studies at George Washington University in Washington. He told RFE/RL that the incident carries only the potential for lasting trouble.

"Both within the U.S. and within China, there is a willingness and a desire to promote better relations, but also wariness about whether that willingness is shared by the other side. And so this kind of an incident unfortunately fuels the suspicions on both sides and makes the desire to work together more complicated."

But Kenneth Allard, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Army, says the incident is an example of generally worsening relations between the two countries. He says that during the previous eight years, the administration of President Bill Clinton was too eager to accommodate China, and China took advantage of that policy. Now, he says, the Bush administration is less accommodating, and Beijing is reacting in like manner.

The American plane made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan on 1 April. Chinese and American officials say it suffered damage after an accidental collision with a Chinese jet fighter, which Beijing says has not been recovered. Allard -- now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank -- told RFE/RL that he believes that the Chinese have been systematically looting the surveillance equipment aboard the U.S aircraft.

"That, to me, is the thing that escalates this thing [event] from just an incident in the air, over the sea, to a diplomatic standoff that, in my view, very, very clearly is taking us very quickly down the road toward a crisis."

Allard and Dickson agree that America's best weapon against China in the current circumstance is economic. In fact, some members of the U.S. Congress are threatening to block China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) if the crew is not released quickly. Any member of the WTO has veto power over the accession of new members.

Ultimately, Dickson says he believes such threats alone will be enough to persuade China to release the 24 Americans and perhaps also their plane. Once that happens, he says, the U.S. will drop the WTO threat.

Dickson says career trade officials working for two previous U.S. presidents -- the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton -- have worked hard to integrate China into the world economy, and he doubts Congress or the current president would want to change that approach. He explained that if China is required to conduct its trade under the strict regulations of the WTO, it would soon become accustomed to the rule of law. And this, he says, could affect the communist government's approach to governance in general.

"Most people recognize that China's entry into the WTO will facilitate its greater integration and therefore, hopefully, moderate some of its more cantankerous behavior."

But Allard believes that Washington should do more than merely make threats.

"WTO, normal trade relations with the United States, suspension of military-to-military contacts, giving the Chinese scientists who are in this country [the U.S.] 72 hours to leave it -- I mean, all of these things are options."

James Lilley -- who served as ambassador to China under the elder Bush -- says the Chinese leadership is not necessarily guilty of deliberately doing anything either to deny human rights to the crew of the surveillance plane, or to provoke the Bush administration. He told RFE/RL that it is important to remember that the entire incident began as a mistake that led to the emergency landing. Now, Lilley says, Beijing may be merely improvising.

"They've got 24 crewmen and a hot-shot airplane, and I'm sure they're debating what to do about it. Should they have the long view? Get it out of the way, get on to WTO, get on to all these other things that are very important to China? Or should they use it to extract [concessions from the U.S.]? And I think these debates are going on in China. I'm not sure how they're going to be resolved, but they go on on every issue."

In fact, Lilley sees nothing very sinister in China's delay in allowing American officials to speak with the 21 men and three women of the crew. Therefore, he dismisses talk on both sides of retaliation.

"Let us not get caught in the pyrotechnics of politician commentary. Nor should we listen to Internet people in China saying the 24 [U.S. crew members] should be executed. Let's go easy on that. Let's focus on what we need to do."

Lilley says Bush's first priority should be to get the release of the plane's crew as quickly as possible. He says a much lower priority should be the recovery of the reconnaissance plane, and that more protracted negotiations should begin on that issue -- but only after the crew members are released.

According to Lilley, China and the U.S. can work out this problem in such a way that both sides can appear to win -- and in such a way that China can join the WTO. This, he says, would benefit both East and West.

The former ambassador says such a resolution of the incident would be easier than it might seem. China can credibly claim victory before its own people because the government there controls the media, and the people of China will never hear such reports contradicted.

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