- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

President Bush's handling of the standoff with China reveals that he is going to approach foreign policy with the strategic interests of the United States as his foremost priority, a welcome improvement from the previous administration.

The clearest sign we have on this is that a senior U.S. official said the United States will refuse to discontinue reconnaissance flights like the one involved in the incident over the South China Sea. Bush won't even consider negotiating the frequency or routes of surveillance flights. In fact, the United States is already preparing to send another Navy EP-3E Aires spy plane down the China coast “within the next week.”

Bush revealed during the presidential campaign that he suffers from no illusions of the sort promoted by the Clinton administration that Red China is our strategic partner. Unlike Clinton, he has a sober awareness of the nature of Communist tyrannies. He knows their ideology is based on lies and their power is sustained by governmental coercion and suppression of personal liberties. Such lawless regimes must be distrusted and their activities closely monitored, especially the production and deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

From the very onset of the incident we knew that a rational, prudent and calm adult was acting as our commander in chief. We were further comforted by the knowledge that he has surrounded himself with the finest foreign policy experts on the planet.

Bush deliberately downplayed the conflict with China from the moment the news of the aerial mishap broke. He remained unflappable as the days elapsed and tension mounted. He did not allow criticism from either side of the political aisle to alter his course of bringing home our troops while preserving inviolate the strategic interests of the United States.

Some are maintaining that Bush blinked by expressing an apology to the Chinese and thereby compromised our strategic interests. I disagree.

Let's consider the language of the letter the United States delivered to the Chicoms to bring this ordeal to a happy conclusion. First, it declared that President Bush and Secretary Powell felt “sincere regret” over the death of a Chinese fighter pilot. “Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of Pilot Wang Wei,” the letter continued, “that we were very sorry for their loss.” What's wrong with that? I, too, sincerely regret that a Chinese pilot who was probably ordered by his government to harass our aircraft with dangerous cowboy maneuvers had to die. I also feel sorry for his family and for the Chinese people, who are continually misled by their repressive leaders.

“We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely.” That statement doesn't bother me either. Not a syllable of contrition can be inferred. We are very sorry that China unreasonably refused to grant us clearance to land.

If the Chicoms leveled with their people they wouldn't be so outraged, just like they were when they were told that the United States deliberately bombed their embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict. The people have no idea that there is a debate over who caused the collision, let alone that America believes that it was not to blame. They are led to believe that American arrogance has been behind its reluctance to formally apologize. Further, the Chinese people are doubtlessly unaware that their government operates the biggest electronic spying network in the Asia-Pacific region, eavesdropping on Russia, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and India, in addition to many smaller countries.

Despite the Chinese government's virtual enslavement of its people, this event illustrates that public opinion is far from irrelevant. Why else would the government engage in such propaganda and deny basic freedoms of expression? In fact, public opinion is what compelled the Chinese to insist on a semantic rendering of the letter to the effect that the United States had apologized.

Our awareness of the importance of Chinese public opinion — both in reality and in the eyes of the Chinese leaders — militates in favor of our continued efforts to promote openness and democracy for the Chinese mainland.

President Bush navigated through his first foreign policy challenge with sophistication and aplomb. He threaded the diplomatic needle by securing the release of our airmen with language that allowed China to save face with its people, but did not express contrition for the manifestly legal actions of the United States. Hopefully, the president's future actions will put China on notice that they no longer have a license to engage in unbridled aggression in East Asia.


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