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HONG KONG — In the end, China released those 24 members of the crew of the U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance plane just in the nick of time. The end of the crew’s detention — plus China’s decision not to put any of the crew on trial, as some hardliners had advocated — came just in time to undercut a growing spontaneous boycott of Chinese-made goods in the enormous U.S. market.

Much depends on how the story of Chinese-American relations plays out in the next few days. But the emotional reaction of American consumers to the detention of their air crew has put the Chinese on notice that they should not take for granted the demand for the made-in-China goods that have been proliferating in American shops in the past two decades.

Currently, China regularly replaces Japan as the nation with the largest trade surplus with the United States. But Americans have hardly noticed until now how dependent they have become on one particular nation for so many of their low-priced consumer goods.

The detention of those 21 men and three women military personnel caused many Americans to sit up and take notice of the $115 billion worth of Chinese-American trade, heavily skewed in China’s favor.

A K-Mart vice president was quoted as saying, “Our customers are telling us to quit doing business in China, that they’re not going to buy things made there anymore. These are just people taking time out of their schedule to contact us. . . . How many other people out there are thinking the same thing?”

There are many more vexed questions arising from the ongoing crisis in Chinese-American relations, posing difficult choices for both China and the U.S.

Why continue the reconnaissance flights in the first place? One basic answer is Taiwan. As China increases its military buildup and missile deployments along the China coast, with some People’s Liberation Army hardliners arguing that China should do to Taiwan what NATO air forces did to Kosovo, the Americans have stepped up their reconnaissance flights. China has consequently increased the tactical aggression of its interceptions.

The intelligence that the flights provide is considered necessary so that the U.S. knows what it will take to sustain the balance of power — and the peace — in the Taiwan Strait.

Satellites simply cannot yet fully replace the function of the slow-moving EP-3E. Theoretically, the Americans could take their SR-71s out of mothballs.

The SR-71s, which for years provided intelligence concerning that other Asian flash point — what was happening north of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas — fly at a height and a speed that put them beyond interception. But whether they could reduplicate the intelligence function of the EP-3Es in these circumstances is not known.

In the the course of the series of meetings that started Wednesday, the Chinese are certain to demand that the U.S. halt all such “spy flights” along the Chinese coast. President George W. Bush himself has already indicated that such flights will continue.

Instead, the U.S. is hoping to reach the same understandings with China, preferably in the form of a written agreement, as it once had with the Soviet Union, in an earlier Cold War, regarding the way interceptions are carried out in international air space.

But that could become yet another divisive issue, if China reiterates that its own airspace extends 200 miles into the South China Sea rather than the 12 miles recognized by nations worldwide.

If a Chinese-U.S. interception agreement proves impossible to get, and if the U.S. persists with the EP-3E flights, the risk of a military confrontation will increase. Without such an agreement, the Americans face an unpalatable choice: Do they execute a real kowtow and halt all surveillance flights? Or do they send in aircraft carriers to provide escorts for future reconnaissance flights?

If Taiwan were still run by a dictator who talked about reconquering the mainland, the U.S. might be tempted to abandon it. But Taiwan is a thriving democracy that deserves to be defended. So it is not within the realm of practical politics for the U.S. to abandon Taiwan to its fate. Washington must continue to insist on a peaceful realization of “one China.”

The choices facing China are also difficult. Beijing could decide that a Cold War-style agreement on interceptions was appropriate for its status as a major power. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs could clarify that China’s claim to the whole of the South China Sea does not apply to its airspace. The order could quietly go out from Beijing that Chinese fighter pilots were not to pursue such aggressive tactics in making interceptions.

All three options present Beijing with national-image problems, but given China’s control of the media, these are not insurmountable.

The problem is, all these options are merely palliatives. The far better option would be for China to reduce its bellicosity toward Taiwan and to moderate the military buildup along the Fujian coast and elsewhere.

The U.S., seeing these moves from its spy planes, would then reduce the number of reconnaissance flights and in time reduce arms sales to Taiwan.

But these moves, to be worthwhile, would require a much more difficult decision: for Beijing to recognize clearly that to try and develop the Chinese economy by running huge trade surpluses in the U.S. market, and to aggressively assert China as a major power vis-a-vis Taiwan, are simply contradictory and incompatible objectives in terms of the reality in America.

Either way, China has to forgo one in order to achieve the other.

The devil of the dilemma facing any thoughtful Chinese leader right now is that to stop asserting the necessity of Taiwan’s speedy return to the motherland is not within the realm of practical politics in China. Nationalist jingoism, heavily laced with anti-Americanism, has been roused to help the Chinese Communist Party survive in the wake of the Beijing Massacre. Taiwan’s return has been made the most important nationalist objective.

Yet for China to stop sending ever greater exports to that massive U.S. market is not within the realm of practical economics. Without the ever-growing income from China’s export drive, even nationalism will not save the CCP.

The message coming from that spontaneous American consumer boycott is that, in the end, China must choose; it cannot have its cake and eat it too.

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