Int'l Herald Tribune

Chinese Succession Plays Key Role in Spy Plane Drama

Paris, Saturday, April 7, 2001

Jim Hoagland Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- For reasons physical and political, the probability that an American spy plane deliberately rammed a Chinese jet fighter over the South China Sea on Sunday runs as close to a perfect zero as mathematics allows. Imagine a fully loaded moving van trying to ram a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on an open plain and you get the picture.

So the official Chinese version of the collision that forced a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance warplane into a mayday landing on Hainan Island can be dismissed. The Chinese F-8 pilot who went up to harass American spies at work almost certainly overdid his instructions to be particularly aggressive and accidentally flew into the lumbering propeller-driven craft. But Beijing's false accusation of U.S. responsibility is revealing nonetheless. It underscores the air of confrontation that has quickly developed between President George W. Bush's incoming administration and President Jiang Zemin's outgoing leadership team.

The Chinese story is a reflexive act of pride, and pride is a driving force for Mr. Jiang as he draws an ever-clearer line in the sand for Mr. Bush. The underlying strategic tensions between the two nations are rapidly getting personal: Mr. Jiang sees American actions suddenly threatening his legacy. Even the best-laid strategies can be blown off course by stray winds. The spy plane incident is the latest in a series of seemingly unrelated, and unplanned, mishaps in American-Chinese relations since Mr. Bush's election.

None of their intelligence briefings or positions papers would have prepared Mr. Bush or Mr. Jiang to anticipate that a senior Chinese intelligence officer would defect to the United States in December. News of that defection leaked into Taiwan newspapers in March, just as China's deputy prime minister set out on a frame-setting trip to Washington to meet Mr. Bush.

Both the defection and, to Chinese eyes, the suspicious timing of the leak may have put China's security services on edge. They terrorized a Chinese-American family visiting relatives in China by arresting the mother, Gao Zhan, on espionage charges on Feb. 11, and have arrested at least one other Chinese-American scholar since.

Mr. Jiang was no more likely to have been consulted on Gao Zhan's arrest than Mr. Bush would have been asked to authorize the spy mission near Hainan that went wrong. But the two leaders must now deal with the consequences of these incidents, and do so at an unsettling moment of dual transition.

Mr. Jiang, due to retire by 2003, is beginning to gradually yield power, while Mr. Bush is trying to grab hold of it with an understaffed administration.

Add to this the reality that China and the United States have never developed the kind of informal crisis-management framework that Washington and Moscow learned to apply to strategic mishap, and the opportunity for the EP-3 incident to become the first crisis of Mr. Bush's presidency is evident. It is a time for caution on both sides. The plane incident comes as Mr. Bush moves toward a decision later this month on Taiwan's request to buy new U.S. weapons, including four battle cruisers equipped with sophisticated Aegis phased radar systems. Mr. Jiang sent Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen to meet with Mr. Bush last month in an effort to head off this sale. But Mr. Bush refused to give Mr. Qian any assurances on a subject that Mr. Jiang has made a make-or-break issue in Chinese-American relations. Pride dictates this stand more than strategic calculation, since the radar systems would take nearly a decade to deliver.

Mr. Jiang began his term by promising his colleagues on the Politburo to bring China to the point of reabsorbing Taiwan at a time of Beijing's choosing, according to U.S. intelligence reports. The Aegis sale would be a powerful symbol of failure in Mr. Jiang's quest for what he said would be his most "historic accomplishment."

Mr. Bush must make the decision on the Aegis sale on its own merits and not allow Mr. Jiang to gain leverage over the sale through the spy plane incident. There may be other weapons systems that would meet Taiwan's immediate needs as well as the Aegis, but that decision must be made on military and national security criteria, not under the threat of Chinese blackmail.

The Pentagon may have acted unwisely in sending the espionage plane so close to China at this particularly sensitive moment. But there can be no American apology based on the false Chinese version of events, as Beijing demands. That is not just a matter of pride. It is one of justice.