In its meeting in Beijing this week to discuss the recent midair collision between a Chinese fighter and a US spy plane, the United States has several important goals.
It wants to clearly and forcefully make the point that such surveillance flights are legal and will continue. It will demand that the $80 million aircraft be returned. It also needs a clearer sense of the role and relative power of China's military vis-a-vis political officials.
And it must indicate no slippage in its dual (and in some ways contradictory) aims in the region: expanding economic activity while protecting Taiwan within the "one China" view.
The US will acknowledge that China has "every right" to regularly intercept and track US aircraft in the region, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld puts it. But such intercepts must be done safely, US officials will argue.
And the video of a January flight in which the Chinese pilot (flying the very same plane that later collided with the EP-3) repeatedly came dangerously close to the US aircraft makes the point that Chinese actions against unarmed US surveillance planes have become more aggressive in recent months.
Earlier this year, the US formally protested such behavior by Chinese jet jockeys, and new "rules of the road" are likely to be discussed in Beijing this week. The US also will use the occasion to point out that China conducts military surveillance flights around the region as well.
"At least six countries fly reconnaissance flights in Asia, including China," says Mr. Rumsfeld. From Beijing's point of view, of course, China is not able to fly its surveillance missions 50 miles off the coast of the United States. Nor does it do so in Asia with the sophistication and frequency of the US.
The meeting this week will be difficult and delicate. It comes at a time when both the US and China are going through political change, when public emotions on both sides are running high, and when the economic relationship is becoming stronger - making it more difficult to saber-rattle since the costs of doing so have become greater.
Here in the US, hawkish lawmakers in both parties argue that the US should retaliate by (for example) opposing China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics or curtailing military-to-military exchanges. "There's going to be retribution," says Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Time to learn more
But some China experts say this could do more harm than good to US interests.
Bates Gill, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution here, says a time of increased tension makes it all the more important that the US try to understand the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's military establishment. "We should do as much as we can to learn even more about this organization. And not just in a strictly military, technical sense, but what its role is, precisely - politically and within the decision-making councils of power inside China," says Mr. Gill.
Meanwhile, the public relations battle in both countries continues. Downed Chinese pilot Wang Wei has been declared a "revolutionary martyr," playing to growing nationalistic and anti-colonial feeling in China. In this country, the fresh-faced, all-American aircrew of the EP-3 gives a decidedly human dimension to the business of international spying.
Spotlight shifts to talks
But now that the yellow ribbons are coming down from trees at the EP-3's home base in Washington State, the story's main actors become the relatively anonymous officials meeting in Beijing.
The US delegation consists mostly of Defense Department representatives. While Pentagon officials say the US fully intends to continue surveillance flights in the South China Sea, new ways of avoiding aerial conflict will be brought up with Chinese officials.
Through the decades of the cold war, the US and the Soviet Union worked out such agreements as the two great superpowers shadowed each other with ships and aircraft. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has scaled way back on its reconnaissance flights as its military forces feel the pinch of hard economic times.
And as the Bush administration reviews the United States' overall military strategy and goals, it is becoming clearer that if any one country is to take the former Soviet Union's place as an incipient superpower (and therefore potential threat to US interests) it's China.
One silver lining in the incident: Through diplomatic efforts, the United States and China found a way to step back from what could have been a much more difficult situation.
Says Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "After 12 days of haggling, recrimination, and rhetoric, finally both sides have found out that even though there may be a new administration in Washington, even though the Chinese leadership is undergoing a political transition process, both sides can still do business with each other."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor