While the accidental bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade was a tragic mistake, it doesn't justify the Beijing authorities' cynical and manipulative reaction.
In unleashing demonstrations that effectively held the United States ambassador and a skeleton staff hostage for days, the Chinese government has played a dangerous game.
First, it could give disgruntled Chinese ideas and lead to protests over domestic issues. The recent peaceful demonstration by a Buddhist group only hints at the possibilities.
Second, the incident is sure to weaken already flimsy support in the US Congress for improved ties, especially normal trade relations and Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization. Congress is already furious about alleged Chinese espionage activities in the US and the stealing of nuclear secrets.
The demonstrations, which have now ended, bear the fingerprints of Chinese nationalists who want to reverse improved bilateral relations sought by moderates such as Premier Zhu Rongji. These hard-liners resent growing American influence and pressure to end human rights abuses.
For days, the government-controlled Chinese media did not report the apologies of NATO and US officials, making it seem as though the attack was deliberate. They have yet to explain the plight of the Kosovar Albanian refugees, removing the NATO air campaign from its proper context. Considering China's repression of its own ethnic minorities, such omissions are not surprising.
The government bused in demonstrators and provided them with signs and placards. It did little or nothing to prevent damage to the embassy and consulates. It's ironic such treatment was meted out to Ambassador James Sasser, who has labored long and effectively to improve relations.
Still, Chinese-American relations remain too important to allow a total rupture. Nonmilitary trade should continue. Each side could pay for damage to the other's diplomatic missions. If China wants to be constructive, it can support any negotiated Kosovo peace plan that might come before the UN Security Council.
Otherwise, a diplomatic pause may be in order until the Chinese sort out their policy intentions. Sasser should be allowed to finally finish his tour of duty and the ambassador's position left vacant for a short spell. During that time, high-level visits by officials such as Defense Secretary William Cohen should stay on hold. Then, when tempers on both sides of the Pacific have calmed, both sides should pick up the pieces - from trade talks to symphony visits - and start again.