- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2001

Once again Beijing has decided its time to square off with "foreign enemies." Guess what, America, youre the devil du jour.

Start with this useful analytic rule: In a military incident, such as the April Fool´s Day collision between a U.S. Navy recon plane and a Chinese fighter-interceptor, never underestimate the roles fear, stupidity and incompetence played in the actual event.

In the best of circumstances, with perfect weather and crack pilots, aerial interception is a risky exercise. Maneuvering large, fast-moving objects in close proximity takes skill and experience. Frankly, mainland China´s military pilot corps isn´t ready for prime time. The Chinese know it, the U.S. military knows it.

Chinese officials, of course, would prefer that China´s people not know it. For the Chinese military, engaged in political maneuvering back in Beijing, it´s better to blame the Americans than lose face and accept the shame of mediocrity.

At the same time, never underestimate a military incident´s potential for serious political consequences, no matter the encounter´s immediate circumstances.

The Pentagon says Chinese interceptors became increasingly aggressive in late 2000. Fighters would slip to within 10 feet of U.S. aircraft. To fly that tight, you have to be good and Chinese aircrews aren´t.

The aggressive intercept policy precedes the arrival of the Bush administration. It´s too pat to conclude the aggressive intercepts signaled dissatisfaction with a new president who will consider providing Taiwan with new defensive arms and who is not accepting campaign contributions from Chinese intelligence officers.

Yes, the Chinese, as students of strategist Sun Tzu, do practice the subtle arts of diplomatic sign language. This incident lacks strategic subtlety. The Chinese reaction is as hasty and rash as it is a belligerent indication of their own surprise and military embarrassment.

Instead of Sun Tzu with a sleight of hand, it´s a red-faced Hulk Hogan with a ham-hand.

As this incident evolves, Beijing may well change its initial confrontational tact in favor of a mature and moderate diplomatic resolution. Beijing desperately wants to host the Olympic games. A growing, confident China needs trading partners, stable neighbors and good will.

Rhetorical moderation accompanying the return of the U.S. aircrew and plane, and a quick bilateral investigation of the unfortunate collision, would signal a confident, secure China interested in positive relations with the United States.

Beijing, however, isn´t secure. China´s ruling clique´s power center is still the People´s Liberation Army (PLA), and the communist elites face an array of internal challenges:

China´s rapid economic liberalization has not produced political liberalization. Modern communications mean the Chinese population is no longer isolated from the global information net. Economic freedom whets a taste for political freedom. Beijing´s authoritarians want both capitalist wealth and communist control. They can´t have both.

China has a long history of regional friction. Beijing confronts a dramatic imbalance in regional development. The east coast is rich, the central provinces lag, the western provinces are further behind. Ethnic tensions persist. In western China, Muslim Uighurs agitate for autonomy. Though it strikes many observers as utterly unwarranted, the historical consequences of the Taiping religious rebellion stirs fear of the Falun Gong movement. Over the last three years, there have been an increasing number of labor protests.

The dark side of economic expansion, without the securing foundation of the democratic rule of law, is expansive, debilitating corruption. Beijing has been cracking down. The anti-corruption "purge of the periphery," which started picking off corrupt provincial officials, has moved toward the capital. However, the anti-corruption drive may also mask one faction´s attempt to damage rivals. Recent defections by Chinese intelligence officers may be a result of the anti-corruption drive or the result of PLA infighting, or both.

Concern exists among the cognoscenti that someday more than an American turboprop and a Chinese jet will collide. China is a regional Asian power with growing global clout. The United States is a global "hyper-power." Someday, vital American and Chinese interests may slam into one another with the force of war.

PLA and Pentagon strategists don´t dismiss the possibility.

However, the U.S.-China War of 2025 is not inevitable. Washington must continue to pursue a "dual track" diplomacy with Beijing, a careful carrot-and-stick that encourages Chinese moderation and integration while penalizing aggression and repression.

That´s a tall order, especially when carrots are spurned and it´s stick time.

It´s especially tricky when an embarrassed Beijing stirs international trouble in order to mask military mediocrity, distract a restive populace and deflect domestic critics.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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