The Chinese military inadvertently did us a big favor when they decided to harass American spy planes flying over international waters off the coast of China. Hard-liners in China may have thought they could intimidate the United States, but instead they have awakened American public opinion to the dangers of assuming China is just another market for U.S. goods.
The hope of 1.2 billion new customers for American products and services has all but dominated U.S. relations with China in recent years, causing us to turn a blind eye toward human-rights abuses in the People's Republic and to downplay the communist government's aggression toward Taiwan and its potential threat to its other neighbors. But the events of the last two weeks have made it crystal clear that China is no mere trading partner, but a potential and dangerous adversary.
Conventional wisdom in American foreign-policy circles has tended to regard China as less problematic than the former Soviet Union. Not only was the Soviet Union more powerful militarily, posing a direct threat to the United States, but it was clearly expansionist, as well. The Soviets conquered eastern Europe, invaded Afghanistan and dispensed troops as far away as Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. China, most experts contend, has never posed the same degree of threat either to its neighbors or to the United States. But that appraisal may well deserve some rethinking in light of China's recent actions.
Even before the Chinese sent F-8 fighters to intercept American EP-3E spy planes flying over international waters, the Chinese have been making increasingly provocative moves. Chinese submarines have ventured ever closer to Japan in what some analysts deem an effort to assess how quickly Japan's defensive forces can respond. China routinely tries to intimidate Taiwan with live-fire exercises, and in 1996 used short-range missile tests north and south of Taiwan in an effort to frighten Taiwanese voters from electing a pro-independence prime minister. And late last year, China conducted a series of long-range missile tests meant to discourage the United States from selling weapons to Taiwan.
But the Chinese may have miscalculated in their most recent belligerence. Already, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle seem ready to teach China a lesson. Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence urged this weekend that the United States send "a strong signal to China that it cannot continue to engage in belligerent activity toward Taiwan and toward the United States and expect to have the kind of relationship with us that we had thought that it wanted to have." On Sunday, Rep. Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, warned on "Meet the Press" that he may not vote for permanent trading status for China when it comes up later this year.
But the harshest rhetoric of all came from Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli, who accused China of challenging America's credibility. "Relations cannot continue on the current basis," he said over the weekend, noting that he will vote against most-favored nation status for China. "There's got to be retribution."
It remains to be seen whether denying permanent trading status to China would be the most effective retaliation for China's reckless actions, but the very fact that the subject is being seriously discussed should cause China concern. The Chinese need U.S. markets now far more than we need theirs. China may present a huge potential market for U.S. goods, but the United States already serves as a huge and growing market for Chinese products. In 2000 alone, China sold $84 billion more to the United States than we sold to them. Thus, they have a lot more to lose than we do.
Americans don't spend a lot of time thinking about foreign policy -- that is until something happens that affects them directly. But when the Chinese decided to jeopardize 24 American lives, they caught our attention. They may soon wish they hadn't.