Lessons from the China standoff

The 11-day standoff has ended. All 24 crew members from a US reconnaissance plane, detained in China after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet, have returned safely. What has been learned from this incident?

First, in modern diplomacy, public opinion matters more than ever. Chinese and American leaders had to manage the perceptions of their publics as much as they had to deal with each other. Deep cultural differences remain in the way Chinese and Americans perceive each other. Often, American memory is too short, Chinese memory too long.

Many Chinese saw a pattern. After Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited Washington in 1999, the US accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Likewise, after Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen visited Washington, a US reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese jet-interceptor, with the loss of Chinese plane and pilot. How could China's senior leaders not strongly demand a US apology?

China is preparing leadership changes next year, and no Chinese leader wants to look weak. No Chinese leader can develop China's economy if boxed into the sometimes stridently xenophobic demands that often race across China's Internet. Similarly, President Bush wanted to look presidential, to demonstrate foreign policy leadership, and to be consistent with his previous statements on dealing with China firmly. But President Bush also needed to resist drastic measures, which would have jeopardized stable and constructive Sino-US relations in the long term.

Second, experienced diplomats and traditional diplomacy are still essential to forging consensus in their respective decisionmaking systems and between countries. The resolution of this standoff is a triumph of diplomacy - painstaking efforts by both sides, drawing on institutional and personal relationships, to bridge differences and create common ground sufficient for both sides to declare victory.

A US reconnaissance aircraft and Chinese jet fighter collide in international airspace with the loss of the Chinese plane and pilot. The US plane makes an unauthorized landing on Chinese territory. China demands an apology. The US declares it is not at fault and will not apologize.

The first issue was thus joined: How could the US crew be released without the US apologizing? The solution came in a series of US statements, which expressed regret over the loss of China's pilot and the US plane's landing without permission. Eventually, the statements included the words "very sorry," which the Chinese translated as an apology.

This is classic diplomacy - carefully worded statements and actions whereby each side says and sees what it wants. Both sides win.

The US desire that its plane be returned promptly and untampered with was not resolvable by the time of the release statement. Talks about the return of the plane will continue April 18, extending China's time to analyze the US plane's capabilities, though the plane's crew presumably destroyed its most sensitive equipment and records.

Here again is classic diplomacy - leaving for later what can't be resolved now. At this point, the US wanted its crew back more than its plane; China wanted the plane, but didn't want to hold the crew. Both sides will investigate jointly, and establish "rules of the road" for reducing future accidents.

Third, the bilateral process of working through a challenge can underscore, and in some cases create, common ground. The accident has forced both countries to work together more closely than they would otherwise have, except perhaps in preparing for the president's trip to China.

Both sides talked tough during the impasse. Common efforts averted dire scenarios. Intense deliberations opened lines of communication and personal understanding within and between both the US and Chinese decisionmaking systems. Some of the Bush administration's China skeptics found themselves working with Chinese counterparts.

Fourth, even as diplomatic solutions emphasize the need for constructive relations, recent hard bargaining will also remind both sides of continuing deep differences.

Beijing does not want to turn US public opinion or especially Bush administration feeling against China just before Washington makes decisions about arms sales to Taiwan, requirements for China to join the World Trade Organization, China's bid to host the Olympics in 2008, and President Bush's first trip to China as president in the fall. Beijing wants to remind the Bush administration not to stoke the fires of Chinese nationalism, not to embarrass China's leaders in other matters after they have returned the US crew, and not to take China or its interests for granted.

Washington wants to remind Beijing of ongoing US concerns: that Beijing not damage long-term Sino-US ties by cementing an image of itself as a bellicose country willing to hold Americans hostage, and that Beijing not expect more-favorable terms for its World Trade Organization membership. The US will deal with this and other issues on their merits. One example will come when Congress votes again on whether to extend China's trade status. In sum, China and the US have many differences to work out.

Gerrit W. Gong is the Freeman Chair and Asia director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and was a diplomat in the US Embassy in China.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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