- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

The midair collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and the Chinese jet fighter flown by a daredevil pilot over the South China Sea has led to yet another re-examination of our stormy relationship with Beijing.
It was the first test of President Bushs ability to lead in a foreign policy confrontation, and he passed it with flying colors though as such tests go, this one was a relatively minor one. This was not the Cuban missile crisis or the Iranian hostage crisis. It never grew to the point of becoming anything near a crisis, though some in the media called it that. But it could have become one if it had been handled badly.
There are some big things worth confronting China over such as the threat of a Chinese attack on Taiwan but not this accident off the coast of China.
This was a job in which statesmen and wordsmiths had to ratchet up the stakes the longer the impasse remained unresolved. But at the same time, they had to keep the negotiations calm and on track toward a deal both sides could accept. Mr. Bushs foreign policy team, calmly led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, handled this one just right. Cooler heads have never prevailed better.
In the end, this was all about face-saving; the preservation of our legal right to operate within international air space to protect Taiwan; and the internal political struggles in China between its nationalist, hard-line communists and the reformers who have slowly put China on a path toward free-market capitalism in a bid to become a global economic power.
The incident provoked some hysterical political rhetoric in the United States. Most of it came from China-bashers, who saw a chance to rekindle the smoldering debate over most-favored-nation trade status for China.
Gary Bauer, who ran for president last year on an angry anti-China trade platform but couldnt get even 1 percent in the polls, reappeared to say that this showed we had to impose trade sanctions on China. A few lonely protectionists, such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, sent out a press release or two saying the same thing.
But that issue was fully debated in Congress, and the Bauers and Hunters lost. The majority view in Congress, shared by the Bush administration, is that expanded trade will encourage Beijings fledgling free-enterprise economy by opening up China to U.S. businesses, products, ideas, literature and the Internet.
Even more hysterical was the editorial reaction titled "A national humiliation" in William Kristols Weekly Standard, which attacked Mr. Bush as weak and spineless in the face of Chinas belligerence and its needless delay in releasing the 24 crew members.
In its editorial, the conservative magazine said, "Bush has revealed weakness. And he has revealed fear: fear of the political, strategic and economic consequences of meeting a Chinese challenge. Having exposed this weakness and fear, the Chinese will try to exploit it again and again, most likely in a future confrontation over Taiwan."
Mr. Kristol was over the top on this one. A great military power knows when to use force and when to defuse an incident from which it can gain nothing of strategic importance.
But this isnt the first time Mr. Kristol has broken with conservatives over political policy. He pushed Colin Powell for president at one point. Then he backed the presidential candidacy of Sen. John McCain, who allied himself with the liberal, anti-tax-cut Concord Coalition, pushed for strict federal controls over free-speech in political campaigns, and backed Ted Kennedys Patients Bill of Rights, which is based on the idea that more lawsuits will solve our health-care problems.
Mr. Kristol hasnt been thinking very clearly, or very conservatively, lately.
In the end, Mr. Bush and his team kept their focus on what was important in the 11-day standoff: Be firm and resolute, but do not let Chinas hard-liners force us into overplaying our hand. Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell fully understand we must keep our policy focused on Chinas next generation of leaders, who will be demanding more economic and political freedom in the years to come. Thats why it is important that we strengthen and broaden our trade ties to China, bring its system under the World Trade Organizations rules, and work from within to politically liberalize its society through its growing, entrepreneurial middle class.
At the same time, we must send a strong message that Chinas behavior in this latest incident has worked to its disadvantage. The forthcoming arms sales to Taiwan will be the most effective opportunity to do that, as will the resumption of surveillance flights.
When you add up the points scored on both sides of this confrontation, China got a "very sorry" for the death of its pilot but little else. We, on the other hand, reaffirmed our right to conduct reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea and our resolve to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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