- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

China handled this year's spy-plane crisis far differently than it handled last year's spy-plane crisis.

The revelation last week that 27 high-tech bugging devices had been discovered on a U.S.-made personal jet ordered for Chinese President Jiang Zemin appeared at first to be a propaganda coup for Beijing, an opportunity to stoke anti-American feelings and demand concessions as happened in last April's standoff over a downed U.S. military surveillance plane.

This time, the response has been remarkably muted. The Foreign Ministry has not acknowledged that bugs have been found, no protests have been lodged with U.S. authorities and the incident has not even been reported in the China's domestic press.

Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi, meeting with reporters in Beijing yesterday, again played down the incident, dismissing it as "idiotic behavior."

On Monday, Mr. Sun said the flap would have no bearing on next month's visit by President Bush to Beijing, a visit expected to focus on the U.S.-led war on terrorism and economic ties after China's recent entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Larry Wortzel, director of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center, said the low-key response reflected the Chinese leadership's growing awareness that "the old policy of bellicosity and belligerence wasn't getting them anywhere with this administration in Washington."

"It took them about a year to get it, but they're finally getting it," Mr. Wortzel said.

Chinese Vice Prime Minister Qian Qichen softened the official line on another issue yesterday, telling reporters that members of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would be welcome to visit the mainland.

China has previously denounced the DPP and its leader, Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), as separatists. Mr. Qian said that the vast majority of DPP members would be allowed to come to China, with only an "extremely small number of die-hard independence elements" excluded.

The downing of the U.S. EP-3E surveillance plane last year after it collided with a Chinese fighter plane was just one of a series of incidents that set relations on a collision course early in the Bush administration.

Mr. Bush in an interview went far beyond previous U.S. presidents in announcing his determination to defend Taiwan, which China considered a renegade state, and he approved an extensive weapons sale to Taiwan over Beijing's protests.

However, the tone has changed dramatically in recent weeks. Mr. Bush's decision to proceed with a missile defense shield elicited only a mild response from Beijing.

Analysts offered a range of reasons for Beijing's softer diplomatic tone. They included:

•China's planned leadership succession. Mr. Jiang will cede power, most likely to the largely unknown Vice President Hu Jintao and a generation of younger leaders this fall. While Mr. Jiang cannot be seen as too soft on the United States, neither do Beijing's outgoing leaders want to provoke new crises with Washington.

"They don't want any drastic changes, for better or worse," said one Asian diplomat. "Any leader who suggests a major change right now just makes himself a target."

•The coming WTO revolution. Huang Ju, a member of the Chinese leadership, has warned publicly that the reforms and market opening that China must undertake as it joins the world trade club pose a serious challenge to the Communist Party's rule.

"WTO accession will have a serious economic and social impact on China," Lin Wen-cheng, director of the Institute of Mainland China Studies at Taiwan's Sun Yat-sen University, predicted in a recent analysis in the Taipei Times.

•A successful summit. Mr. Jiang has put a high priority on a successful visit to Beijing by Mr. Bush Feb. 21 and 22.

The prime minister is angling for a return invitation to the United States to cap his tenure, preferably a state visit to match the warm reception given by Mr. Bush to Russian President Vladimir Putin, both in Washington and at the president's Texas ranch.

•September 11. China has supported the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, but has watched with growing concern as the United States bolsters military and political ties with states on China's border. The United States has moved closer to Pakistan and several Central Asian states where Beijing has been attempting to increase its own sway.

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