The United States and China have resolved their crisis. Diplomats crafted a statement that allowed both sides to save face and permitted the 24 members of the U.S. spy plane to go home. The peaceful resolution of the standoff is a victory for diplomacy. Just as important, however, both governments now have the measure of each other. While Washington and Beijing have proved they can do business together, lines have been drawn. Just as worrying, their competition for influence will only intensify.
The crisis began when a U.S. reconnaissance plane, flying in international airspace, collided with a Chinese jet fighter on April 1. The Chinese plane crashed, and the pilot is presumed dead. The U.S. plane made an emergency landing at a military airfield on Hainan Island, where the crew was taken into custody and the plane has been picked over by Chinese specialists.
Other details of the incident are unclear. Bits of information have leaked, but little will be certain until there is a complete investigation. There is a good chance that the two governments will never agree on the exact cause of the crash: The loss of life and the national sensitivities involved raise the stakes in ways that make a simple adjudication of right and wrong impossible. Perhaps the most that can be expected is that the two governments will establish procedures and mechanisms to ensure that similar incidents are avoided in the future.
While no one wanted to see the situation deteriorate, there was no guarantee that cooler heads would prevail. Hardliners in both countries were pushing their governments to stand firm; they were willing to step up the confrontation and force the other side to blink. Fortunately, common sense won out.
The resolution of the crisis suggests that the two governments understand the stakes. Both were firm, but demonstrated flexibility at critical moments. In the diplomatic note that was worked out in laborious detail, the U.S. expressed regret for the incident, saying that it was “very sorry” for the loss of life and the entering of Chinese airspace without permission. While that did not constitute the apology that China had demanded, Beijing chose to see it as such. That allowed the crew to be released; the plane is likely to remain in Chinese custody for some time.
The compromise shows that the two governments can develop a working relationship. There will be many issues over which Washington and Beijing will clash — the most notable being arms sales to Taiwan and human rights — and the two governments will continue to compete for influence, but they have no option but to cooperate on a wide range of matters. This incident should drive that point home.
The episode will leave other impressions, too. Concerns about the new U.S. administration’s diplomatic skills should have been put to rest. President George W. Bush managed the situation well. He kept a low profile and let diplomats take the lead. By standing firm without letting things get out of hand, Mr. Bush passed his first real foreign-policy test. China’s America watchers should also note that the country rallied behind the president. Although there are many views about the proper course of U.S. relations with China, there were no divisions during what was perceived to be a crisis.
The loss of the EP-3 spy plane will also have an impact. Although the crew had orders to destroy sensitive equipment and data, China is still going to get an intelligence windfall. Reverse engineering could boost China’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. If nothing else, the Chinese military now knows what the U.S. is looking for and can take countermeasures.
In addition, the episode alerted the world to the “silent contest” that is being waged every day in the sky. Intelligence operations are an essential part of national security, but we often prefer to forget about them. This incident drives home the fact that Japan is directly involved in the contest for influence that is being waged by the U.S. and China: The spy plane departed from Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa. It is vital that the public understand that fact.
The standoff has shifted public perceptions of the rivalry in another way. While moderates in both governments prevailed, the incident will also harden suspicions among conservatives and hardliners in both countries. Quite clearly, the competition for influence in Asia between the U.S. and China is intensifying. In addition, there is a sense of grievance in both capitals; regrets notwithstanding, there are plenty of people, Chinese and Americans alike, who feel as though their government and national interests did not receive the respect they deserved. As the U.S. and China deal with the many issues on their mutual agenda, those feelings will return to the fore. The two governments will have to be no less adept to ensure that future confrontations are resolved as peaceably as this one was.
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