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The China Connection

Ken Nesmith

The standoff between China and the United States, after having simmered uneasily for several weeks on end, has ended its most dramatic stage with the return of the 24 American crewmen who were aboard the EP-3 surveillance plane when it made an emergency landing in China on Apr. 1. The incident focused an uncomfortably strong light on the shaky state of affairs between the two nations, and aggravated hard-line members of each nation’s government. Events unfolded, though, as if the confrontation were a spat between two immature children on a playground, and it ended in such a character as well.

The United States engages in routine surveillance flights off the coast of China, using advanced electronic equipment designed to intercept and decode every sort of signal that can be intercepted and decoded. Our surveillance flights draw the attention and harassment of Chinese military pilots, who buzz the planes, perhaps to try to scare them away. Apparently, on this occasion, the Chinese pilot buzzed too close and struck our jet, causing his death and forcing the emergency landing of the spy plane. The EP-3 landed without permission in a Chinese airfield, and was promptly boarded by the Chinese military. The American crew members were held and interrogated about the incident, and were only released when the two countries’ leaders had finished staring each other down.

It was hard not to laugh when various senators and other dignitaries marched onto network news broadcasts demanding that the Chinese not board the aircraft, as if they had some control over the situation. The Chinese, after what surely must have been a long and thoughtful consideration of the senators’ wishes, took one glance at the treasure trove of toys available aboard the aircraft and shrugged off the arrogant American rhetoric.

Immediately following the landing, the two countries began trading ultimatums and conflicting versions of events, each casting its own actions in a more favorable light. Most contentious was whether our plane swerved and struck the fighter jet, or the fighter jet simply ran into the EP-3. The most recent evidence suggests that it was the Chinese jet that ran into our plane on one of its fly-by attempts. The Chinese, though, repeatedly demanded a full apology to the Chinese people for the death of the pilot, and also sought the cessation of surveillance flights in general. The United States demanded the immediate release of the crew from Chinese possession.

One has to wonder how we would react if the situation were reversed: Chinese spy planes are flying up and down our coast, carrying advanced equipment designed to monitor our country’s secret goings-on. One of our pilots is killed in a confrontation with the plane, and the Chinese land on Long Island. Would we tolerate their spying in the first place? Certainly not. Would we kindly leave their plane, with its bundles of technological wonders, untouched, and promptly return their crew without an apology? No; probably not. In fact, when a Russian spy plane landed on our own soil several years ago, we faced no moral quandaries in choosing to examine its contents thoroughly. It is not clear as to precisely why we should be granted special rights and treatment from the Chinese government.

Practically, the Chinese held the upper hand in this exchange: they had our people, and they could decide when to release them. Our government released increasingly conciliatory statements, carefully expressing various combinations of regret and sorrow as we tiptoed towards some statement that would allow us to save face and would give the Chinese sufficient reason to release the crewmen. Eventually, we stumbled upon something that worked when we decided in a letter to Beijing that we were sorry for the death of the Chinese pilot. The Chinese declared that they had won the standoff, twisting our words just a little bit in declaring that we had fully apologized to the Chinese people for the incident. The crewmen were allowed to return to the United States, and the major television networks were allowed to talk about things other than the great standoff.

The U.S.-China relationship has not been a good one in recent times, and these events did nothing to help. There is still debate over what sort of trading rights we should grant to China, considering its abhorrent human rights record and its hostile attitude towards Taiwan. With regards to Taiwan, there is the soon to be answered question of what allotment of advanced weaponry the U.S. should sell to the island to help it resist a possible Chinese invasion. China, of course, would rather that we did not sell them the most advanced arms. China has been pursuing the opportunity to host the Olympics in 2008, but after these recent developments, that looks somewhat less likely to happen.

It’s unfortunate that there is such a deep riff between these two nations. The fundamental cultural differences that divide these two nations are most troublesome when they inspire the sort of nationalistic, almost xenophobic commentaries that could be found over the course of the last few weeks. China comprises one-sixth of the world’s population, and it is a growing economic and military power. It is not a nation we can politely ignore, and it is not a nation that we would like to have as an archenemy.

In the most recent turn of events, the United States has refused to meet with China in order to determine exactly what happened in the collision until the spy plane is returned. This is, perhaps, not the most productive stance to take, but like the playground politics of seven-year-old children, these confrontations are not generally centered around getting things done as much as they are around saving face and making sure everyone understands how strong you are.

As American citizens, we tend be oblivious to the huge amount of power we casually wield in international affairs, whether we are flaunting international military or environmental treaties or exerting control over entire nations to satisfy our primarily economic but sometimes ideological interests.

We will not, however, be able to do that forever with China, and we would do well do to thoughtfully craft a careful, mutually beneficial long term strategy that recognizes and necessarily offers healthy respect for other nations, rather than diminutive arrogance. Childish bickering is probably not the best way to begin this process. Hopefully, the next years will see the development of a more fruitful approach.