- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

The 24 U.S. service men and women who landed on a Chinese island on Sunday are hostages. This word hasn't been used in official circles, but the Chinese regime clearly sees those individuals as captives who could be valuable bargaining chips, redeemable for U.S. policy concessions. The White House has to make getting back its 24-member crew the overriding priority, but it should not trade them, like so much human chattel. Instead, the administration must make clear that U.S.-China relations are in danger here, as well as China's membership in the civilized world.

Washington has any number of options available to drive home this point. Mr. Bush might decide against visiting China in the fall, for instance. The Chinese bid to host the Olympics could also be at stake. Ultimately, however, also this includes trade ties. Fortunately for President George W. Bush, his leverage has been handsomely improved by action on Capitol Hill. A number of irate legislators are pushing forward legislation to revoke China's Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, in view of Beijing's brinkmanship. "It's an instrument to remind China that they need the U.S. economy more than we need theirs," said Rep. Jack Kingston, Republican from Georgia. "There's a responsibility that comes with the status," he added.

Surely, the Chinese, who are as well-informed as anyone in Washington, are aware what is going on, and Beijing ought to feel the pressure if this initiative gains ground on the Hill, as it assuredly will. If this standoff grinds on for too long, the Bush administration must let Beijing know that ultimately, PNTR is at stake. If all else fails, the United States should "rattle its checkbook," as Mr. Kingston recommended Wednesday. This should be the United State's last trump card though, the equivalent of a diplomatic neutron bomb. Still, it is there to be used if needed.

It is not clear what Beijing wants in return for the U.S. crew members. However, if the aim was to ratchet up tensions with the United States, or to make it all but certain that Mr. Bush will approve arms sales to Taiwan, the Chinese leaders have succeeded splendidly. China's delay in returning the crew and the decision to search the U.S. plane are both in direct violation of international agreements that have been signed by both China and the United States.

Chinese bitterness over the unfortunate NATO bombing of its embassy in Kosovo is resonating in this incident. Again the Chinese are demanding abject apologies, which they ought not to get this time. Secretary of State Colin Powell's expression of "regret" for the loss of the Chinese pilot, who appears to have engaged in utterly reckless behavior in the air, was as conciliatory as the U.S. government ought to be. Mr. Powell struck just the right tone.

However, the Bush administration must not allow itself to be blackmailed by Beijing. Instead, China must learn to respect boundaries and internationally acceptable behavior.

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