WASHINGTON -- "There was a lot of flinching up here," said a Capitol Hill Republican in describing the reaction by conservatives to President Bush's expression of "regret" over the lost Chinese pilot. For the most part, however, such flinching as a private signal of disapproval was not accompanied by public criticism. The inclination to respond with China-bashing was suppressed as quiet diplomacy moved toward release of the 24 Americans.
That restraint in part derived from Secretary of State Colin Powell's performance in closed-door meetings on the Hill. He made it clear that the Bush administration's soft tone in the spy plane affair by no means reflected either a naive view of China nor willingness to kowtow to Beijing. Rather, the retired general's classified briefings reflected a hard-nosed assessment of Chinese strength and aspirations.
The presence of an EP-3 surveillance aircraft close to sovereign Chinese territory confirms that China's rising military strength is regarded with the utmost seriousness by the U.S. government. The plane was on a routine mission surveying an area where new Chinese submarines are being deployed as part of a rapidly developing blue-water navy. While keeping a watchful eye on China, the Bush administration does not want either U.S. military muscle-flexing or the spy plane incident to wipe out economic engagement with the Beijing regime.
In contrast, some members of the congressional China-bashing contingent were in full cry. Rep. Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania, a member of the International Relations Committee who is well-respected in conservative Republican circles, took to the floor Wednesday to assail "reckless aggression" and "outrageous ... belligerence." He added: "President Bush should stand firm and strong and demand an apology from the dictators in Beijing."
But not that many conservatives echoed Pitts, attesting that a Republican is now in the White House. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms, normally a stentorian voice in such matters, was silent.
Such silence was partly achieved by admonitions from the administration to keep quiet until the 24 American crew members were released. But beyond that, senior Bush officials have made clear that they do not really disagree with the anti-China bloc's overall assessment of what the Beijing regime is about. The Chinese government in general and the military in particular deeply resent the U.S. military presence in East Asia and, in response, have embarked on a huge military buildup.
Part of that accelerated armament has been a possible breakthrough in developing an effective Chinese submarine to counter the U.S. aircraft carrier. Stratfor.com, the private intelligence service, quotes sources in China as confirming that "Chinese military reaction" to the spy plane "was sharp because the military is trying to safeguard its submarine secrets."
The difference between congressional hawks and administration officials is how to respond to the mutually perceived reality. While the China bashers would launch a new cold war, Bush wants to maintain economic ties with Beijing and still keep a watchful eye on the Chinese military.
Defense Department sources leaked last week that Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had kept quiet throughout the crisis, was not happy with Colin Powell's negotiating strategy. But it was almost certainly these sources, not the secretary, who were unhappy. Rumsfeld was silent because he did not want to provoke the anti-Pentagon mood in Beijing, but he actually collaborated fully with Powell behind the scenes in devising crisis strategy. A Defense press officer last Friday issued a statement affirming total agreement between Rumsfeld and Powell.
More personally, Rumsfeld at a meeting last week approached Rep. David Dreier of California to whisper his concurrence in what the congressman was saying. Dreier, who as Rules Committee chairman is a member of the House Republican leadership, has been a stalwart in supporting constructive engagement with China.
Because of that stand, Dreier has been the target of abuse from fellow Republicans (including fellow Californians). He has been unjustly assailed as a Chinese apologist for the crass purpose of maximizing American business profits. In fact, he recognizes the evils and dangers of the Communist regime but sees the promise for change in economic reform. That view thankfully prevailed in the Bush administration last week.