- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

After 11 days of haggling over syntax and word choice, the American service men and women detained on Hainan Island are finally coming home. That is certainly a cause for rejoicing, but it is not the end of the story by any means. In this country, we will start weighing the potential long-term costs of the episode. In China, given the prevailing anti-American mood, the regime may turn out to be hostage to its own folly.
The White House avoided but came uncomfortably close to assuming responsibility for the collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter in international airspace on April 1. In a letter to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan yesterday, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher said, "Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss. We are very sorry the entering of Chinas airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance." While U.S. negotiators avoided the dreaded term "apology," for Beijing, "very sorry" were the operative words.
"The firm struggle by the Chinese government and people against U.S. hegemony has forced the U.S. government to change from its initial rude and unreasonable attitude to saying 'very sorry to the Chinese people," said the Communist Partys Peoples Daily. Chinese lingering resentment of 19th-century colonialism could in part explain the bravado behind this statement, but it is surely also an indication of Beijings own hegemonic ambitions. Chinas insistence that the April 1 collision occurred in its own airspace demonstrates that China is reasserting its claim to much of the South China Sea, a stance which has led to naval clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines. That China wants the United States out of East Asia is no secret.
However, it would appear that the nationalistic fervor whipped up by the Communists is now undermining their credibility. Initial claims that the United States was to blame for the accident put China in an uneasy diplomatic position. The regime did indeed want its people to rally around its demands for a U.S. apology. But with an eye towards commercial interests, it also had to keep the fanaticism in check. Numerous requests were filed for demonstrations, but Beijing didnt allow any.
Now, many Chinese people believe that Beijing has failed to take a firm enough stance with Washington. "China is a coward. President Jiang Zemin must step down," one middle aged Haikou resident told Agence France-Presse. "China always lets other countries pick on it, it does not stand up for itself. The U.S. has not explained itself yet, how can they release the crew, I wouldnt be surprised if students organized protests." This type of sentiment could become difficult for the Chinese regime to control.
The aftermath of the EP-3E episode will reveal whether the White House acquiesced in any undisclosed concessions to the Chinese, a reduction or suspension of surveillance flights for instance, or withholding arms from Taiwan. Either would be unacceptable. Furthermore, let us not forget that the Chinese are holding a resident of this country on flimsy cooked-up charges. Mr. Bush should continue to press for the release of Gao Zhan, a Chinese born sociologist at American University in Washington, who was detained on Feb. 11 for spying. Clearly, the recent tension between America and China is only one symptom of a very tense relationship.

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