Hainan: From accident to incident to accident?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

April 4, 2001 atimes.com

Hainan: From accident to incident to accident?

With the scheduled meeting on Tuesday night in Haikou of US diplomatic personnel and the crew of the American reconnaissance plane that made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island Sunday morning after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet, a brewing diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing appeared to be moving toward solution. Already prior to the meeting, albeit after 48 hours of apparent indecision, high-ranking Chinese officials had begun to signal from different corners of the globe Beijing's desire to lower the temperature on an affair the US and international media styled "the spy plane crisis" and "the biggest foreign policy test of President Bush's young administration".

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan had said in Paris on Monday: "I hope that an adequate solution can be found soon," after meeting French President Jacques Chirac, adding that US officials had told Beijing that the incident would not influence US-Chinese relations. "Nonetheless, we have to give an explanation [about what happened] to the Chinese people," said Tang. And on Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reported that Zhang Wannian, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, had given assurances during talks in Canberra that "the Chinese side would allow consular access to the Americans [held on Hainan] immediately, consistent with diplomatic norms and that this matter would be resolved through diplomatic means". That seemed to be a direct response to President Bush's Monday complaint that "Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request [for access to the US plane crew] is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations."

In other signs that China's leaders have determined that not much is to be gained from an extended row with the US, a Tuesday commentary on the website of Xinhua, the state news agency, seemed to indicate that China is now inclined to view the mid-air collision between the US and Chinese planes as an accident much as the US has claimed it was. And further, President Jiang Zemin has chosen to focus attention on the fate of the missing Chinese fighter pilot and asked for redoubled seach efforts rather than dwelling at length on assigning blame.

All this, of course, doesn't end it. Even if the US crew is sent home in the near future, the spy plane's fate remains to be determined. As the New York Times put it in a Tuesday editorial: "It is unrealistic to expect the Chinese not to inspect the aircraft and its sophisticated electronic gear. If the roles of the two countries were reversed, Washington would not hesitate to look over an important piece of Chinese military equipment that showed up on American soil. Nevertheless, the United States should be allowed to repair and remove the plane at the earliest possible date."

So, there has to be some further give and take. And both the US and Chinese governments have yet to face and fully come to grips with the popular sentiment stirred up by the incident-turned-accident. That's less of a problem for Washington where public interest in the matter will quickly subside once the American military personnel are back home. What things look like in China is indicated by a commentary and cartoon in the China Daily. The commentary derided US explanations that the mid-air collision was an accident, and drew parallels with the 1999 bombing of Beijing's embassy in Belgrade by a US plane on a Nato bombing mission, which Washington says was a tragic mistake caused by the use of outdated maps. A mocking cartoon accompanying the commentary depicted the EP-3 spy plane at Lingshui airport with a speech bubble coming from the cockpit saying: "It might be due to another map error."

If it wants to see mutually respectful, correct and productive relations with China, it would behoove the US Bush administration to understand (and reflect in its actions the understanding) that China is in a delicate phase in domestic political affairs. President Jiang Zemin must ward off hard-liner challenges to assure smooth leadership transition over the coming year and prepare the country's economy and financial institutions for WTO entry and greater exposure to international competition. He cannot appear weak in the face of international challenges if he is to face and successfully meet opposition to his domestic agenda.

Just how unsettled the Chinese domestic situation remains, writes Francesco Sisci in his analysis on this page, was revealed again by the delayed and initially unclear response of the Chinese leadership to the Hainan affair. The Bush administration should factor domestic Chinese uncertainties into its dealings with the People's Republic and see to it that mutually beneficial economic relations do not fall prey to political missteps. It appears to have done so to date and in the present circumstances. Decisions on military equipment sales will prove the next test.

((c)2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 03, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ