Under pressure

Forget the campaign trail's pop quizzes. The diplomatic impasse with China is President Bush's first major foreign policy test.

By Salon Staff
Published April 5, 2001 2:50PM (EDT)

Growing fervor among anti-American hard-liners, and an irate public whose anger has been fueled by Beijing's state-run media, threatened to escalate the diplomatic impasse between China and the United States Wednesday. Though the Bush administration is trying to spin the situation as troubling but not a crisis, America's European allies are calling it the first big test of the inexperienced president's foreign policy.

So far Bush gets mostly high marks for a calm response to the situation. But he has several strikes against him. His administration is untested, and pre-existing tensions between his State and Defense departments can't make the matter easier to resolve. Plus, Bush's own inexperience -- it's no accident he's taken no questions at his news conferences on the matter, leaving the heavy lifting to Secretary of State Colin Powell -- can't inspire great confidence during this, his first international crisis.

By any measure, Bush's job in this first test isn't easy. On the one hand, he wants to maintain a firm position with the Chinese and push Beijing toward greater accountability for human rights violations and arms sales to North Korea and other hot spots. At the same time, he must also demonstrate caution and avoid inflaming the Chinese people to the point that President Jiang Zemin and other leaders will be unable to back down. President Jiang stepped up Chinese demands Wednesday for an official apology. But Saturday's incident occurred over waters that even China's ambassador to the United States has admitted were international, so it's unlikely Bush will approve any such action.

Already some European allies are starting to criticize Bush. Ex-Italian ambassador to the U.S. Sergio Romano reserved a huge chunk of Italian daily Corriere della Sera's front page to dis the newbie prez, writing that the incident would be "part of the apprenticeship of a young president who rules the world, but is only truly knowledgeable about Texas." Romano continued: "His character and somewhat rash style, along with the requests of his Republican electors, suggest that he should show muscle, speak forcefully and proclaim that America's interest comes before all other considerations. He will realize soon that others also have their interests and that even the president of the United States must take them into consideration."

Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson told the media he was hoping for a "peaceful" solution, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung -- an ominous allusion to allies' fears that a military clash could result from the current stalemate, given the green president's lack of foreign policy experience, and the influence of intransigent hard-liners on Beijing's Zhongnanhai gerontocracy.

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S. officials "regret the loss of life," alluding to the apparent death of the pilot of the Chinese jet in the collision. But he offered no apology, and added, "But now we need to move on. We need to bring this to a resolution." His comments came after an earlier press conference held by Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said: "The U.S. doesn't understand the reasons for an apology ... the United States did nothing wrong." Fleischer also refused to say that the 24 crew members were being held hostage or "detained." Instead, he said: "That crew is still in detention." One day earlier, Powell told reporters the U.S. had "nothing to apologize for."

But the Chinese don't seem to be budging. China's ambassador to the United States, Yang Jiechi, told CNN in an interview Wednesday that the Chinese would hold the crew members on Hainan pending the outcome of an official investigation.

Salon asked experts to comment on the latest developments in the crisis.

Arthur Waldron is professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

President Bush has already shown he's going to put more stress on issues like democracy in China than Clinton did. That means he'll pay more attention to countries in Asia that share our values. He has signaled that already through the heads of state he has met and so forth. That is a change from the Clinton Asia policy and its focus on Beijing.

How the Clinton administration would have reacted to this incident is hard to say. Clinton had a sort of mixed record on China. There were times he was yielding to Beijing, when they fired the missiles toward Taiwan, for example. Clinton sent carriers but made major concessions as well. Bush has shown he's not going to yield on matters of substance to the Chinese. This is a much more competent administration at the level of carrying out diplomacy. There have been fewer miscues, fewer forgotten lines, fewer accidents on stage under the Bush administration. This is just a much more experienced and adept administration. They know how to operate internationally in a way the Clinton administration was never able to achieve. If you look at how Bush has been handling this, he spoke very clearly about what had to be done. The crew and plane had to be returned. He didn't make any threats. He didn't go overboard on pounding the table. He did not escalate this to allow it to become the focus. Allowed Colin Powell in particular to be the face and the voice of the administration. He's shown a kind of coolness, and modulated the response.

Compare that with, say, Carter with the Iranian hostages. Everything came to a stop. It didn't make any sense. Just like in Iran, there is nothing we can do to get these guys back.

[As far as European and international concerns about Bush's diplomatic efforts are concerned,] there is the image around the world of W. as a strange Texan who embodies all the worst stereotypes of Americans and I don't really see it.

There's no question the Chinese are testing the new president. They're trying to feel out what this administration is going to be like. But it's not just the Chinese. Everybody is testing the new president. We saw this particularly at the beginning of the Clinton administration. He campaigned against appeasing the "Butchers of Beijing." He made a huge rhetorical commitment to appeasing the Chinese people. He tried to link human rights to trade, but the Chinese didn't budge. They rubbed his face in it, and in the end, Clinton blinked and backed down. The Chinese had discovered that Clinton could be rolled. So this is all very standard, in a way.

There is some evidence that this Chinese fighter pilot was kind of known as a barnstorming type, a hot dog. There's very good evidence that he was the one at fault. The Americans are not above apologizing. With the Belgrade embassy bombing, we did apologize. It was our fault. The question now is, can we switch from the blame mode into the regret mode? We need to both be able to say we regret this terrible thing happened, that a Chinese pilot lost his life, and move on. We've already started to see that from Powell. Now, if the Chinese can just bank a little bit so that we all agree this was a horrible accident, we can close the book. But if it doesn't end soon, it's just going to lead to trouble.

Michael Swaine is the research director of the Center for Asian Policy at the Rand Institute.

This incident is producing a lot of tension, but I don't think it's escalating to the point where you'd really consider it to be a serious crisis. If it's a crisis, it's clearly threatening the basic tenor of the relationship, that it has legs, it can damage it for some time to come. I think it has the potential to do that, but I don't think that we're at that point right now.

I think the near-term situation now is to figure out a way in which the two sides can agree on the conditions for the release of the crew that meets their minimal expectations that are necessary, particularly for domestic consumption in both countries.

I think [the demand for an apology from the U.S.] is a position that the Chinese government has taken in large part for domestic consumption, and I don't think it necessarily is a bottom-line negotiating position that they will not release the crew unless they get an apology. That would be very regrettable if they make that kind of a link. That would go a long way toward making this into a crisis, if they really demand a formal apology before they will release the crew.

What they're more likely to get at most is an indication of U.S. regret over the loss of life, that the incident occurred, a desire to examine the incident in a cooperative way, and a desire to hold discussions on how to avoid such air incidents in the future. But their ability to get even that is going to depend a lot on how they resolve this crew problem in the next few days. If we get to the weekend and this has not moved at all, I think there will be pressure within the U.S. to increase pressure on China.

This kind of an incident directly affects the perceptions of political leaders on how to handle the other side. It's really a question of pushing sentiment within the respective political elites toward taking a harder position, a less conciliatory and less compromising position on issues that could be coming up, or are going to be coming up in the near future, like the arms sales decisions to Taiwan, like the human rights convention in Geneva, and like World Trade Organization membership for China and permanent normalized trade relations, which still have to be approved again this year. The WTO deal has not gone through.

The indications are in this case that a lot of the problem is being driven currently by the fact that the Chinese government does not want to look weak in the face of what it sees as another U.S. challenge. They don't want to have a replay of the kind of situation that they had two years ago with the bombing of the Chinese Embassy and the public demonstrations in China. The Chinese government has quashed the demonstrations that have been attempted in this incident, and they want to control the message very clearly. So at this point, it's really a question of getting to the bottom of the issue of the crew in a way that can leave a face-saving way out for the Chinese.

Compiled by Daryl Lindsey and Anthony York.

Salon Staff

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