Reported by Ann Scott Tyson, Francine Kiefer, Dante Chinni, and Peter Grier. Written by Mr. Grier.
The case of the EP-3 spy plane - an incident characterized by both belligerence and, eventually, mutual restraint - may well stand as a portent of US-Chinese relations to come.
In recent decades the United States and Chinese governments have structured a wary acquaintanceship around shared economic and strategic interests. Both sides have benefited from this interaction. Both want it to continue.
But the cultures of these two huge nations are so different as to guarantee an almost permanent state of disagreement on issues such as Taiwan and human rights.
China's continued emergence as a world power will inevitably increase the number of potential points of conflict with the US. The result is likely to be a relationship moving toward neither a cold-war enmity nor an alliance, but instead continually cycling through periods of anger and reconciliation.
"I don't think there will be any lasting damage from [the spy-plane standoff], but we should expect more incidents like this with China over time," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
At time of writing, the American spy-plane crew had not yet taken off from the Chinese island where they have been held for 11 days following their collision with a Chinese fighter jet and subsequent emergency landing.
But their freedom had apparently been won by a subtle change in US wording. In a carefully negotiated statement, the US said both that it was "very sorry" for the presumed death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, and for the fact that the crippled EP-3 had entered China's airspace and landed on Hainan Island without verbal permission.
A meeting now set for April 18 will address both the return of the damaged spy plane and the future of US spy flights through disputed Chinese airspace.
The discussion dealing with that latter point is likely to be a strained one, note analysts. It deals with just the sort of situation that today creates US-Chinese conflict.
The reason the EP-3 was in the area in the first place was because of China's continued expansion of weaponry in coastal areas opposite Taiwan. That is not likely to change - nor is Washington's implicit support for the Taiwanese government, and the US military's desire to know what is going on in an area that could become a major strategic flashpoint.
"As long as they are building up [military forces] at this frenetic pace, we'll have reconnaissance flights," says James Lilley, a former US ambassador to China. "If they want to talk about that, fine."
For President Bush, the end of the standoff came at a time when unrest over the administration's actions in the crisis was growing in Washington.
Conservatives, in particular, were becoming more vocal about what they felt was the administration's muted tone in regards to what some, such as Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, were openly calling a hostage situation.
Release of the crew will lessen legislative pressure, and allow the administration more leeway on its upcoming decision about whether to sell advanced Aegis radar and other weapon systems to Taiwan. It also increases the likelihood that Congress, once again, will vote later this year for continued normal trading relations with China.
But the debate prior to that vote will undoubtedly be marked by agitated rhetoric. Some sort of ancillary legislation denouncing China's proliferation of weapons technology is possible.
And negotiations over a trip to China by Mr. Bush sometime this year will become both more difficult and more important. The fact that the administration has not pulled the stopper on such a trip means that, from the US view, the EP-3 standoff ended relatively well.
But resentment over the way China manhandled the incident is sure to linger.
"There's a lot of bad feeling," says Doug Paul, director of the Asia Pacific Policy Center. "Everywhere I go, Congress and the administration, people are ticked."
The Bush foreign policy team was predisposed to view China more negatively than did the Clinton administration. Bush himself campaigned on the notion that China was a strategic rival, not a strategic partner, after all.
Release of the crew will take the incident off US front pages. But the ongoing mutual investigation of the incident is likely to have a souring effect on the overall US-Chinese relationship, say some experts.
China cannot afford to change its view that the US was totally at fault in the incident. Absent some change of heart and admission of guilt on the part of administration, upcoming meetings on the issue will simply become forums for shouting, says David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University here.
"It will be very acrimonious, and you can therefore kiss military-to-military relations goodbye," says Mr. Shambaugh.
But China did agree to release the crew, in the end, after making its point that it was antagonistic to even the concept of spy-plane flights off its shores. It did not press the crisis to the point where it frayed basic relations - particularly commercial ones - with its largest trading partner.
To the Chinese, the accidental bombing of their embassy in Yugoslavia by the United States was likely a more dire crisis than the spy-plane standoff. If the bombing did not rupture relations, neither would the EP-3.
Some experts even see the incident having a positive impact.
"It's like a stock-market correction," says Arthur Waldron, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute here. "It has gotten rid of illusions on both sides. People in America became more realistic about what an ugly regime it is, and the Chinese will realize that we will not always do what they want."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor