Abruptly and unexpectedly, US-China relations are imperiled by events far removed from either nation's capital.
Sunday's mid-air collision of a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese Naval Air Force fighter near Hainan Island was an accident waiting to happen. Chinese pilots, presumably with authorization from their military superiors, had been engaged in much closer pursuit of US intelligence-gathering aircraft in recent months, and US officials had repeatedly warned Chinese counterparts about the increased risks inherent in such conduct.
The warnings have come to naught, resulting in the death of one Chinese pilot and the emergency landing of the EP-3 at a Chinese naval air base on Hainan, with 24 US military personnel under the physical control of local authorities. Given the extensive damage to the American aircraft, the US personnel are fortunate to have escaped with their lives.
Neither country's leaders should take much solace that this accident did not involve the loss of far more lives. It has already engendered consequences for the perennially troubled Sino-American relationship that could prove very difficult to repair, at least in the near term. Less than three months into the George W. Bush presidency, the two countries confront the prospect of a major diplomatic row, one whose reverberations could set the tone for bilateral relations for years to come.
At time of writing, the Bush administration clearly hoped that a firm but respectful attitude in negotiations over release of the crew would soon bear fruit, though the prospects for the early return of the aircraft seemed far more problematic. The new foreign policy team recognizes that there can be no gain in stoking the aggrieved Chinese nationalism upon which Beijing leaders are only too prepared to rely. But the president's deportment has yet to be reciprocated by leaders in China, who may well be animated by domestic preoccupations far more pressing than an expeditious conclusion to the events in the South China Sea.
It seems incomprehensible that last Sunday's incident could indefinitely preoccupy the Chinese and US leaderships, thereby foreclosing the development of more productive ties. But political support for the bilateral relationship seems extraordinarily shallow in both countries. Despite the compelling incentives for cordial if not intimate relations between the United States and China over an array of international issues, the center of gravity in bilateral relations seems increasingly unsteady. With few leaders prepared to expend appreciable political capital on enhancing bilateral ties, senior officials are denied the creativity and flexibility essential under more stressful circumstances.
In the charged atmosphere of Beijing politics, it is often difficult to filter the signals from the noise. However, the Bush administration has no alternative but to conduct private and public relations with China in a forthright manner, while avoiding needless provocation of Beijing that feeds those forces in China who would welcome a severe estrangement in US-China ties.
Should the impasse persist, however, the administration will also face growing pressure to "do something," especially from members of Congress. Used judiciously, quiet reminders to Chinese interlocutors can underscore the potential risks to bilateral relations should the contretemps persist without satisfactory resolution, let alone deteriorate further.
But the events in the South China Sea can also have a chastening effect on the new administration. Upon entering office, President Bush pledged to devote his primary foreign policy efforts to reinvigorating relations with America's major allies, which he claimed had been neglected at the expense of the Clinton administration's efforts to cultivate ties with Russia and with China. By implication, the new foreign policy leadership sought to defer fuller consideration of relations with Moscow and with Beijing, and quite possibly relegate both to a lesser priority in US policy concerns.
Recent events, therefore, could well have an unanticipated if somewhat salutary effect. They have provided a sobering reminder to the new administration that it does not have the luxury of deferring development of a credible, sustainable China policy to a later date. Indeed, America's closest allies in Asia probably worry more about the consequences of a prolonged US-China estrangement for their own interests than any other issue in regional relations.
Both literally and figuratively, therefore, the new administration unexpectedly finds China on its radar screen. Though President Bush must now deal with US-China relations far sooner than he might have preferred, it is the reality he now confronts.
The immediacy of an early foreign policy crisis with China should be chastening to the new team, but the risks and dangers should be equally sobering to the Chinese. Dealing credibly and coolly with this incident presents both leaderships with the opportunity to develop meaningful rules of the road for the longer term, and will also underscore a shared stake in effective crisis management.
Failure to achieve satisfactory outcomes will entail even larger potential consequences. Even as China characterizes itself as the aggrieved party that must be compensated for last Sunday's events, the prospect of a deeper US-China estrangement ought to give both countries pause. Neither can afford to let events in the South China Sea determine its policies for the indefinite future.
Jonathan D. Pollack is chairman of the Strategic Research Department of the Naval War College in Newport, R. I., where he also directs the college's Asia-Pacific Studies Group. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own, and should not be attributed to the Naval War College or the US government.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor