On Wednesday April 4, two days after Chinese and American planes collided above the South China Sea, a Bush official described the White House's approach as "step by step." If this is "step by step," I don't want to see "jumping the gun." Bush's rhetoric and intransigence ratcheted tensions so high that both sides are dangerously polarized.
And while our president lugs his bulletproof podium around, just in case he has to declare war or something, he refuses to do anything proactive. He even refuses to answer questions, and sharply told one persistent journalist to "give it a rest."
Washington darkly threatens that any attempt by China to board the plane would be viewed as a "serious breach of diplomatic protocol." But, brief look at Cold War espionage tactics reveals a blatant "do as I say, not as I do" attitude. In 1976 a Soviet defector flew his MIG-25 fighter plane to Japan. U.S. intelligence officers spent nine weeks taking it apart and inspecting it, despite Soviet protests, before sending it back to Moscow, in packing boxes. During the Korean War, the U.S. offered gold to North Korean and Chinese defectors who defected with MIG fighters.
The White House has gone to great lengths to characterize the spy mission as a "routine" exercise. But they cannot mask the fact that while spying on China is a regular occurrence, China spying on the U.S. would be a serious transgression. The New York Times pointed out that "the American military does not tolerate such close surveillance of United States territory." In fact, the U.S. has a 200-mile defense zone around its coast, and any foreign military aircraft flying inside this boundary must report or risk retaliation. China's zone reaches only 12 miles beyond its shore.
As Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Relations at Qinghua University in Beijing, says, "China simply cannot agree that the United States has a legitimate right to spy on us, and no other country could agree to that either. Do we know of any country in history that let a foreign spy vehicle land on its territory without investigating?"
No. So while Bush rhetorically embraces a "foreign policy based on humility," in reality he is stretching the definition of arrogance to new heights and breadths. If the administration were truly interested in de-escalating the situation, they would issue a solemn and formal apology. So far all Beijing has gotten is regrets, as in Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement, "we regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot but now we need to move on."
This tense moment with China could be valuable in the long term if used as an opportunity to rethink weapons sales to Taiwan, which Bush is suppose to make a decision on in the next few weeks. The island nation, which China views as a renegade province, has been awaiting a multi-billion dollar deal with U.S. weapons manufacturers-including four guided missile destroyers equipped with advanced AEGIS radar systems. These billion dollar boats would come fully loaded with missiles, guns, and torpedoes. They are also a linchpin in U.S. plans to erect a theater missile defense in China's backyard -- a move that has Beijing understandably enraged. The stakes on this deal are high - for China which sees the sale as a direct challenge to their nuclear capability and a potential vehicle for Taiwanese independence; for Taiwan which views the weapons sales as a first step towards a formal security agreement with Washington; and for U.S. Weapons manufacturers who see the deal as the biggest bonanza to come down the pike in a while.
And they are working hard to make their case. General Dynamics, owner of Bath Iron Works where the destroyers would be built, hired Cassidy and Associates, whose key player is former Reagan defense official Carl Ford, to lobby for the sale. Cassidy, which also has a $10 million contract with a Taiwan thinktank with close ties to the ruling party, conceived of and drafted a letter sent to President Clinton by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and two other Republican Senators that implied that congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations with China was contingent on the White House's prompt approval of the weapons sale.
On the public relations front, jobs were made a major issue. The Aegis Industrial Alliance says that the destroyer contract represents work for 1,938 companies in 49 states that have stakes - including major weapons manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. Also on Taiwan's wish list are P-3C Orion submarine-hunting aircraft from Lockheed Martin, and advanced-medium-range air-to-air missiles, diesel submarines, and M1 tanks made by General Dynamics Corp.
In the 50-year feud between the two countries, China is regularly characterized as the belligerent - not surprising given the fact that China is a behemoth roughly the size the U.S. lurking over a tiny island smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined. But a glance at weapons sales to both countries paints a different picture. Since 1991, the United States has sold Taiwan $20 billion in weapons. Overall, Taiwan ranked as the second biggest purchaser of weapons in the last decade, after Saudi Arabia. During the same period, China has purchased $6 billion in foreign arms-and ranked eighth. Taiwan's arsenal includes top of the line American and French equipment-including 150 F-16s, Patriots, Stingers, ground and airborne radar, tanks and TOW antitank missiles. China is, for the most part, reliant on a Soviet era military outfitted with rusting equipment. Taiwan outspends China almost 3:1 as a percentage of GDP.
The crisis, framed as President Bush's first major foreign policy issue, has sweeping consequences for the future of U.S.-Chinese relations. Issuing a formal apology, decreasing the number of spy missions in Chinese territory, and reconsidering weapons sales to Taiwan, would be prudent and presidential steps towards better relations. In a
meeting with Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen last month, Bush announced he would travel to China in the Fall. He expressed his excitement at the visit, which will be his first since 1975, saying, "I can't wait to see the change, the contrast between when I was a younger fellow and now when I'm kind of an older guy." If he handles the crisis well, he might end up not just older but wiser as a result.
Frida Berrigan is a Research Associate at the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Policy Center.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Foreign Policy in Focus China Page:
Foreign Policy in Focus page on U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan:
This website collected Chinese newspaper coverage of the incident, including a statement from the wife of the downed Chinese pilot. www.globalspin.org