- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

The Chinese plane incident is familiar to anyone with a taste for the cuisine of Cathay. Beijing merely demands that President Bush offer regrets from Column A and apologies from Column B. (Steamed or fried rice extra.)

It's enough to give the president indigestion, but he's staying the sensible course, blowing neither too hot nor too cold, vowing to work "all diplomatic channels" and repeating at every appropriate opening that it's past time for the Chinese government to let his people go.

Signs that the "crisis," if crisis it is, is easing became evident yesterday as the manufactured hysteria in Beijing began to subside.

Fortunately, the crisis is so far mostly one of rhetoric, and the Bush administration is careful not to call the hostages "hostages." The president and the secretary of state are even careful to use the word "regret" every hour on the hour and occasionally on the half hour.

"We are working all diplomatic channels," Mr. Bush told a luncheon yesterday of the nation's editors, assembled in Washington for the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The president "regrets" that "a Chinese pilot is missing" and "regrets" that his plane was lost. He "regrets" that the Chinese cowboy flew into the reconnaissance plane, too, and maybe even "regrets" that the Szechuan shredded chicken he had for dinner last week didn't have more chicken and fewer carrots in it. Most of all he "regrets" that the hostages we're not supposed to call "hostages" are still locked up in what we are not to describe as "captivity".

The diplomatic dance is about the ancient Asian concept of "face," which Americans regard with curiosity and puzzlement, but which is very important to the Chinese autocrats torn by feelings of inferiority and buoyed by fierce pride. The "crisis" is no doubt aggravated by Chinese puzzlement over why Mr. Bush is so stingy with offering "face" when his predecessor offered so much of it. Bill Clinton, who stood at his famous bridge to the 20th century lusting to apologize to everybody with a grievance real or imagined, was eager to share pain. George W., the man from Midland who shows no appetite at all for the therapeutic culture, is not. The Chinese generals, who are believed to be pushing the hard line over the plane incident, may for their part be frustrated that the heavy investment they made in America, through their hard-money contributions to the Clinton campaigns, has gone all for naught.

"Looked at from the West," a Western diplomat in Beijing tells London's Daily Telegraph, "China is taking a really weird approach to this incident, making totally unrealistic demands for apologies and an end to spy flights. But in China that is often the way you get out of an embarrassing conundrum. The stronger party must give the wronged party 'face'. The bully has to admit he is to blame."

This will be difficult for the president now. If he offers the word "apology," after the emphatic assurances that he wouldn't, he will lose considerable "face" though we would never call it that with his own constituency. Polls and other surveys show that upward of 80 percent of Americans are saying "no way" to the idea of apologizing to the Chinese for their having attempted to knock an American plane out of the sky.

When the incident is finally resolved the Chinese may wind up with less than they thought they would. The crew of the reconnaissance plane, so the Pentagon hinted yesterday, may have destroyed much of the valuable stuff aboard, and the search for the Chinese pilot or his body, despite an unusually ambitious effort, has apparently failed. The Chinese could have staged an elaborate martyr's tribute, but as anybody in show business could tell them it's hard to do much without a body, dead or alive.

Sad as his death may be, the Chinese pilot seemed to be asking for trouble. He had challenged the reconnaissance plane in the past, U.S. intelligence sources said yesterday, and this time his reach "simply exceeded his grasp."

The pilot may have been trying to create a turbulent wake, hoping to make it difficult for the American pilot to retain control of the reconnaissance plane. He even flew close enough to flash his e-mail address to the Americans. E-mail address or not, reaching the pilot now is probably a very long long-distance call. No wonder the Chinese are so unhappy.

George W.'s "regrets," echoed by Colin Powell, may be enough face to satisfy Beijing. The Chinese government, if it is ready to resolve the crisis and get back to selling cheap underwear and electronics to the United States, can splash "regrets" across its state-controlled front pages and television screens, characterizing "regrets" in whatever way they like.

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