WASHINGTON -- On Monday evening, April 9, as negotiations to release the American air crew appeared to be deadlocked, diplomats at the Chinese embassy in Washington were singing a happy tune about their country's relations with the United States. That meant the release of the U.S. service personnel was at hand. But it also betrayed a profound misconception in Beijing.
The embassy event was a reception for its new ambassador (with the Bush administration ordering U.S. officials not to attend in view of the tension). Private American citizens present were stunned by the pro-American tone of the Chinese speeches -- in particular, Ambassador Yang Jiechi's. He declared that the two nations are not "competitors" (as President Bush has said) but are "strategic partners" (as President Clinton once suggested).
Because Chinese diplomats are under Beijing's tight control, their comments signaled a decision to end the standoff (even though the crew members would not be released for another 36 hours). Their misconception was that the bilateral relationship can now be restored to what it was when the U.S. surveillance plane went down. I can find no serious American student of China policy in or out of the government who believes that.
The Washington-Beijing tie has not been broken, but it is severely weakened. No sooner had the 24 crew members left Chinese air space than National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice announced that the relationship would be reassessed.
That reassessment includes the Bush administration's internal debate over whether to sell to Taiwan destroyers with the new Aegis radar. Since Aegis could not be operational in the Taiwanese navy for as long as a decade, it has no immediate impact in deterring any Chinese attack on the island province. Nevertheless, symbolic significance can define relations between the two countries, and the new system is a far-reaching symbol.
Winston Lord, one of America's foremost experts on China who held important posts in both the Reagan and Clinton administrations, has spent 30 years working for a constructive relationship with China. Before the surveillance plane incident, he wanted to "defer" the Aegis question while approving other arms sales to protect Taiwan. But now, Lord told me, he is undecided. "I just don't know," he said. That correctly describes the view of important Bush administration policymakers who do not want to be quoted.
President Bush's dilemma: Saying no to Taiwan on the Aegis may look like a kowtow to Beijing, but saying yes may strengthen the hands of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in its campaign to drive the U.S. out of East Asia. What's more, the always politically powerful PLA may be more influential than ever inside China. "Those who want to flex their muscles have prevailed," Rep. Porter Goss, House Intelligence Committee chairman, told me.
Muscle-flexing is especially apparent on Hainan Island, which intelligence sources see as a fulcrum for China's aspirations to challenge the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific with a blue-water navy. According to Jane's Information Group, the island houses two major signal intelligence facilities that are of great interest to American surveillance. It also is the site of recent space launches with military applications.
The island, then, is a major target for U.S. communications reconnaissance planes, which the Bush team has no intention of abandoning. Imagine, however, the PLA's delight when by accident, the EP-3 made its distress landing on Hainan.
By the time the Foreign Ministry (and particularly the skillful Assistant Minister Wang Yi) had gained control of the situation from the military, the damage had been done. This is more than a good-cop, bad-cop ploy. I have been talking to Chinese diplomats for nearly 25 years, and their comments invariably reflect the true views of the Foreign Ministry. These sources have never mentioned running the U.S. out of the region, an aspiration that heads the military's agenda.
But inability of China's civilian leadership to get a firm grip on policy and prevent the 11-day captivity of the Americans imposes a price. It will take more than the happy talk at the embassy last week to avert a deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations and to avoid the renewed cold war for which the China-bashers yearn.