The danger of delay

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

The Bush administration has largely stuck to temperate language in its dispute with China over the April 1 midair collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter, a course not made easier by the heated rhetoric emanating from Beijing. But harsh facts threaten to overtake this prudent official moderation.

China has held the crew of the EP-3 Navy plane for more than a week, meanwhile insisting that Washington apologize - meaning accept full responsibility - for an incident where fault is by no means clear. On Monday the president and his aides again urged Americans to be patient and to give diplomacy time to work. But it coupled this sound advice with renewed warnings that long-term U.S.-China relations could suffer unless the standoff is speedily resolved. That possibility is something American and Chinese diplomats alike have sought from the onset of the crisis to downplay, emphasizing instead the durability and importance of the bilateral ties that have developed over the last few decades. But some in Congress and in more conservative political circles, who have never been comfortable with the China connection, are already urging that retaliatory measures be taken.

It does no harm to remind Beijing of what it is putting at risk by trying to squeeze maximum political advantage out of the crisis. Two-way trade is the most obvious example. Americans buy one-third of China's exports, with the value of China's sales to the United States exceeding its purchases by 6-to-1. There is no clamor yet for boycotts or contract cancellations. But a strained or, worse, menacing political atmosphere can only discourage further direct U.S. investment in China or decisions to buy increasing quantities of Chinese goods.

China's internal politics are by no means as opaque as they once were, though battles between contending factions in the hierarchy continue to be waged largely out of public view. What does appear likely is that the military, whose habitual distrust of the United States has been deepened by the loss of one of its planes and pilots, wants to see no softening in Beijing's position. That complicates the issue that diplomacy must address.

The key diplomatic problem is to find mutually acceptable language that would appear, at least in Chinese, to satisfy Beijing's insistence on an apology without, in English, implying that the United States accepts responsibility for the incident. The issue can further be finessed by agreement on a joint commission that would use all available data - including cockpit recordings - to try to establish the sequence of events leading up to the collision. But the time to reach agreement on these matters grows short. Each day that the 24 EP-3 crew members remain in custody - with their release conditional on China getting an apology - leaves the Americans looking less like "detainees" and more like hostages. With that, the political problem for President Bush becomes more acute.

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