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China Also Has Some 'Hot Dogs' At the Command Level

By George Melloan

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

That wing of U.S. politics that Jeanne Kirkpatrick once labeled the "blame-America-first" crowd predictably came to China's defense shortly after it decided to hold captive the downed EP-3E Aries and its crew 12 days ago. "After all, they were spying," was the standard line. "Would the U.S. release a Chinese crew if they came down under similar circumstances on U.S. soil?"

The question implies the answer: "No, we would not." But that isn't the right answer. If a hot-dogging U.S. Air Force pilot collided with a Chinese plane over international waters, forcing it down at a U.S. air base, the U.S. certainly would turn the crew over to the Chinese authorities. Probably the plane would be returned, too, after a going-over by U.S. technicians. And there would be an apology to China, very much like the one that the U.S. gave when it accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

In the latest incident it was the Chinese who demanded the apology, an impossible position in light of the circumstances. Because it entered "face" into the equation, it greatly complicated efforts to negotiate the crew's release. The U.S. presumably was supposed to apologize both for causing the accident, which it clearly didn't, and for its surveillance, which it had ample justification for doing.

If China were a benign, peaceful country with no designs on its neighbors, there would be little need for U.S. aerial surveillance. But China is no such thing. It menaced Taiwan by firing missiles near its shores five years ago. It lays claim to the entire South China Sea, has a festering border dispute with India and covets islands under the control of Japan and South Korea. Add to that China's cavalier attitude toward U.S. complaints of weapon sales to rogue nations in the Mideast, and you see a military regime that isn't going out of its way to avoid trouble.

China also thumbs its nose at complaints about its atrocious human-rights record, which has worsened with persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and other religious groups. Shortly before the spy plane incident, Chinese police arrested Li Shaomin, a Hong Kong professor and U.S. citizen, on a visit to Shenzhen. Mr. Li is now the second academic with U.S. ties to be taken into Chinese custody. He joins Gao Zhan, a green-card holder who has been charged with spying.

The Bush administration treated the EP-3E case with care, opening up discussions through diplomatic channels and refraining from threats. The U.S. manner has been somewhat akin to the methods applied to dealing with a child's tantrum. The metaphor is apt, considering the fuss that has been raised by the Chinese propaganda machine. It most probably suborned the other Chinese pilot at the scene of the collision into lying about what actually happened.

It has been argued that the Chinese risked a lot by playing this game with the Americans. China's bid for the 2008 Olympics could be tossed out if the International Olympic Committee decides that China has reverted to barbarism. Its entry into the World Trade Organization could be blocked by a U.S. determined to retaliate. Congress could withdraw its grant of normal trade relations and thereby deny China the huge U.S. market for its exports. Pressure could be put on Chinese companies operating in the U.S. or the children of high Chinese officials who are studying at U.S. colleges and universities.

But none of these measures would come without costs to the U.S. Any disruption of the progress toward freer trade with China would be a setback for free trade in general. China has shown itself capable of using its own buying power strategically, playing off European suppliers against Americans. If push came to shove, it could make life difficult for U.S. companies operating in China. And, with some $140 billion in its reserves, it could conceivably disrupt international financial markets by trading large numbers of dollars for some other currency, if it dared take that considerable risk.

The Bush administration has taken a low-key approach because it doesn't think the Chinese leadership would do stupid things just to save face after making a ridiculous demand. It is most likely right. But the stridency with which Chinese propagandists have milked the EP-3E incident to try to stir up the Chinese people suggests a regime that cannot always be counted on for rational acts. For all its success, China has plenty of problems. Peasants are angry about being ripped off by corrupt municipal authorities. Factory workers are being displaced as state-owned industries fold up. A huge floating population seeking work creates social instability. One of the oldest games in history is to find or invent an enemy as a means of diverting popular attention from the regime's own shortcomings.

The People's Liberation Army has been building up to that for years, even to the extent of posing the U.S. as its enemy in its war games and planning its military buildup with the possibility of a conflict with the U.S. in mind. It is specializing in missiles, including intercontinental missiles with enough range to deliver multiple nuclear warheads to the Western U.S. It is deploying submarines with the objective of posing a threat to U.S. Navy ships.

The Chinese complaints about U.S. spying would be laughable if Chinese ambitions for political power were not so intense. During the Clinton administration the U.S. became a virtual playground for Chinese agents. According to the report of the special investigative committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.), the Chinese government in 1997 launched a large-scale program to acquire U.S. military technology. High-performance computers with capabilities for working problems in missile and satellite technology went to China. The result of all this acquisition and theft was an increased threat to U.S. military forces, Mr. Cox said. The numerous fronts that the Chinese set up in the U.S. for scouting out and acquiring strategically valuable technology would be excellent targets for a U.S. crackdown under present circumstances.

This makes it all the more mystifying that the Chinese would have made such an issue of the EP-3E and its crew. Their agents have had the run of the U.S. for eight years and any intelligent Chinese policy maker would have said to the PLA, return the plane and crew before the Americans wake up and discover that our own spies are stealing them blind. But no doubt someone on the defense committee in Beijing decided that now was the time to test out the new Bush administration to see if it could be as easily manipulated as its predecessor. Listening to the blame-America-firsters may have created a wrong impression.