- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

One imagines there will be a certain chill in the air, a good bit of frisson, when American and Chinese negotiators meet today to discuss the fate of the stranded U.S. EP-3E surveillance plane on Hainan island. What do you say when your airmen and women were "detained" for 12 days, prevented from sleeping and fed a diet of fish heads? (Some have suggested that this very same method was inflicted on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to produce the Oslo Middle East accord.)
What to say when desperate May Day calls from the American plane were utterly ignored by Chinese authorities, in defiance of civilized aviation behavior the world over? What to say when your $80-million airplane has been damaged, ransacked, picked over by Chinese soldiers and is still held against American wishes?
"Nice to see you"?
Hardly.
The Bush administration has already said we were "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot who caused the incident. Well, as the Chinese will have picked up, not all of us were that sorry, except for the reason that the U.S. plane got into such a pickle in the first place on Hainan island. President Bush has toughened his tone considerably following the safe return of the crew. Here in Washington, now is the time for recriminations to begin, as we like to say on the editorial page.
Being a fly on the wall at todays meeting would be interesting, not only for the drama itself, but for the importance it will have for the future of U.S.-China relations. It is, in a way, a moment of truth. Or perhaps one of the moments of truth in a fraught relationship.
Basically, this situation can go either of two ways. One is escalating confrontation, the other a cooling of relations that will remain manageable, but not comfortable.
The fuel to stock a fire is definitely there. Among the issues currently occupying the United States and China are arms sales to Taiwan, which are to be decided next week.
Theres the question of Chinas WTO membership, which is still pending following Chinese demands for changes in negotiated agreements, and Chinas trading status with the United States, which comes up for renewal in June. Members of Congress have written to the president hoping to revoke Chinas trade privileges.
Theres the 2008 Olympics, which Beijing dearly wants to host. And theres Mr. Bushs tentatively planned visit to Beijing this summer.
Mr. Bush has given his negotiators four specific assignments:
Ensure the return of the plane, which is obviously U.S. property.
Convey to the Chinese the American understanding of whos to blame here.
Discuss how accidents can be avoided in the future as the United States resumes surveillance flights (scheduled for tomorrow).
And ask tough questions about the behavior of Chinese pilots as they try to intercept American surveillance flights, which according to U.S. pilots have become increasingly aggressive in the months leading up to the accident.
The Chinese for their part want:
The United States to cease the surveillance flights, which inconveniently protect the sea lanes of the Taiwan Strait.
The United States to refrain from selling submarines, Aegis destroyers, and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to Taiwan will only encourage Taiwans independence movement.
Even with all the anger in the air, chances are that ultimately the commission that meets today will have a calming effect. Both sides will be able to air their grievances and in the end, they will probably agree to disagree on how it happened, issuing two different statements and achieving the same diplomatic fuzziness that characterized the release of the crew. Based on the style and outcome of those negotiations that is the likely outcome. A permanent commission to set guidelines for accident avoidance in the air has precedent with the Soviets. Will trade be affected? Again the answer is probably not, given the influence of business interests when the time comes for Congress to vote on Normal Trade Relations. There is no doubt that the vote will be more contentious than ever.
This does not mean, though, that we should proceed with business as usual. Taiwan needs to get the arms it has requested to counter the build-up of Chinese missiles. Our surveillance flights must continue. As for Beijings bid for the Olympics, that has to be off the table. Communists are experts in symbolism and do not deserve to be handed this honor. Nor should they be granted the diplomatic pleasure of an American presidential visit at this time. We know only too well the kind of diplomatic manipulation Beijing will inflict on the U.S. president because we saw it happen only a few years ago.
Chinas actions are not those of a friendly nation and must have consequences. The Chinese obviously never respected Bill Clinton or his emissaries, which is part of the problem Mr. Bush is facing now.
Therefore, the president has to show he is made of different mettle.
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