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Facing the Dragon - April 12, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

When an individual communicates an apology to another, he or she merely affects the human relationship. But when a nation, as part of international diplomacy, requests forgiveness, it acknowledges wrongdoing and sets off a series of ripples that fan out unhesitatingly into the future. The far-reaching effect is induced because the international public policy of a nation carries with it a powerful force called precedent.

So when a surveillance plane belonging to the strongest nation in the world was bumped, forced out of the sky and seized by a weaker nation, and 24 crew members were taken captive, the stronger nation could not simply apologize to put the matter to rest. Much more was at stake than met the provincial eye.

Such an incident could never have been dealt with in isolation. Numerous other nations, many of which aspire to a sort of redefined and malformed greatness, continuously seek to acquire the precise formula that will enable them to effectively manipulate that preeminent of superpowers, the United States of America. These are some of the serious considerations that the Bush administration faced on the day of the ill-famed collision that occurred over the South China Sea.

The leadership of communist China has been inconsistent at best in its communication with the United States over the past years, but particularly harsh positions seemed to emanate from Beijing during the stalemate in order to appease the nationalist faction.

Defense Minister General Chi Haotian gave a statement where he expressed a desire to use "righteous anger" to "protect the motherland's sovereignty and the people's dignity." The choice of language seemed to extend beyond just a cold war mentality, of which Cuban dictator Fidel Castro accused the U.S., and into the realm of prewar communication.

General Chi represents a contingent within China that was, most likely, gleeful over the opportunity that the international event presented, because of the potential to increase power, money and influence in a very competitive communist Chinese pecking order.

With this being the case, individuals of this mindset will probably be the ones who will try to attach a spin to the settlement letter, a version that portrays America as having backed down. Cast in this way, it would allow agitators to attribute success to a superb preparation for military build-up and use the occasion to seek additional spending and expansion of capacity. But if the contrary view becomes popular and America is seen as having trumped China, the outcome could be characterized as evidence that military equipment, personnel and influence were needed more than ever to ensure that a scenario of this type never again occurred. Thus either way, the dragon would be fed.

The tentacles of China's communist party pierce every institution and government body in its land. The long-term objective is to eliminate U.S. presence, influence and weaponry from the Pacific region to the greatest degree possible.

All of these factors highlight just how crucial it was that the EP-3 incident with China was handled with finesse. The entire international community was our transfixed audience.

China demanded two things from the United States: an acknowledgement of fault for the collision and a complete cessation of surveillance flights along its coast. At a certain point the Chinese began to sense that these objectives would not be achieved. As the American people increasingly called retailers to express their displeasure with Chinese imports and members of Congress questioned their PNTR votes, Beijing started to get nervous. It was time to cut a deal that would allow China to save some face, without actually submitting to its demands.

This is exactly what occurred. The letter that turned the tide contained no acknowledgement of fault with respect to the collision or its location. Additionally, not a word was mentioned regarding China's second wish, the end of aerial surveillance flights.

Some of the explicit statements in the letter are not sitting well with China's emissaries. The remark that "the full picture of what happened is still unclear" directly contradicts claims being made by China's spokespeople. Although the letter expressed sorrow for landing without radio clearance, it also stated that the EP-3 was "severely crippled" and that it made "an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures."

The reason China was willing to capitulate without achieving either of its demands is multipronged. China longs to join the WTO. It wants to sustain most favored nation status. It desires to host the Olympic Games in 2008. It hopes to encourage foreign investment. It seeks funding from the World Bank and the IMF. These aspirations all worked in the administration's favor in resolving the impasse.

New and deeper challenges in U.S./China relations now await our leaders. There exists a unique window of opportunity to reevaluate trade policies, military preparedness, alliances with free nations in the Pacific, and strategic missile defense. But we can all rest easier knowing that a thoughtful and judicious administration has done more than bring our servicemen and women home. It has bolstered our long-term national security, thanks to an able, measured approach to pragmatic diplomacy.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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