The mind hungers for the president to give China five minutes to release the EP-3E Aries II's crew of 24 on Hainan Island - an either/or ultimatum recalling Theodore Roosevelt's "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead" demand to uppity Moroccan swamis. Yet we have lost the opportunity for such a demand with China, lost it years ago. With militant Islam, China poses the foremost threat to the West.
The United States has stood on such cusps before - and not so long ago:
- In 1968, North Korea captured the Pueblo and its crew of 82, made itself a gift of the ship's sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment, and held and hammered the crew for 11 months. The North Koreans still have the ship on display.
- In 1975, Khmer Rouge patrol boats captured a container ship, the Mayaguez, in the Gulf of Thailand and stashed the 39 crewmen on Tang Island. President Ford sent in the Marines, 18 of whom died. Unknown to the United States, the Communists released the crewmen several hours before the rescue attempt; the Marines attacked, and fell, in vain.
- In the late 1970s, Iranian goons stormed the U.S. embassy in Teheran. They took embassy personnel hostage and held some of them for 444 days. The incident created "Nightline" (what would we do without it?) and helped defeat Jimmy Carter's bid for re-election. The hostages did not come home until the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration.
Violating decency and right reason and international guidelines, the Chinese have not yielded up the crew - indeed, held it (including its three women) incommunicado for several days.
Also in violation of international norms, they have combed the plane and removed its brains to learn what spies and money to the Clinton/Gore campaign could not provide them about sophisticated American surveillance technology. The latest gouge is what they hunger for, just as it was what they and the Soviets wanted from captured bomber crews shot down over Vietnam - dispatched to the gulag or laogai, everything they knew sucked out of them, and then killed.
At the height of the Cold War the cry was to "contain" Communism where it was rather than to let it expand. The Clinton administration, frivolous and incompetent, contented itself with sitting in the corner tootling our enemies' favorite tunes on a diplomatic saxophone. During a break, the Clintonians did reach with China's comrades a dubious yet ballyhooed "strategic partnership" now reduced - via the Hainan incident - to so many crushed chopsticks.
Today's Rumsfeldian push in the Bush administration evidently is the containment of China - and for good reason.
China's leaders, who call themselves Communists, don't like even the notion of liberty - among other things. They don't like the pacifist Falun Gong. They don't like parents with (a) girls or (b) more than one child. They don't like Bushian talk of an anti-missile system to defend the American citizenry, now naked against missile attack. They don't like the free Chinese on Taiwan - at all. They don't like the presence of American warships in the Taiwan Strait. And they don't like American aid to the Taiwanese in the form of missile systems, F-16s and Aegis-equipped destroyers.
And nearly every American effort to modify harsh Chinese behavior - notably through pleading and access to U.S. markets and Western technology - has failed. China's gerontocratic regime patiently waits and passes on its policies of repression and enslavement to each succeeding power group. Little changes, little improves.
Perhaps a xenophobic China, essentially closed through much of its recent history, seeks to assert its centrality - even its hegemony - on the Pacific rim. Or perhaps a Communist China, projecting a new nationalism, seeks to extend its regional reach unencumbered by American interference. Either way, the Bush administration is right to refocus American military attention on South Asia, likely at the expense of diminished attention on Europe. And either way, given the Hainan incident, America's stronger emphasis on human life - the lives of the Aries' crew - puts us at a diplomatic disadvantage in dealing with the Chinese.
Much can happen quickly: Before these words appear, back-channel negotiations directed by a president who was an Air National Guard fighter pilot could win the crew's release and the plane's return. But if not, we may be in for a protracted pull - with the Chinese bargaining the crew and the plane, for example, for cancelled American surveillance of China or diminished American support of Taiwan.
That would not be good. Perhaps the best thing from this incident, for Americans, would be a wake-up call to harsh Chinese realities. This is not fantasy stuff. The regime there postulates the United States as its principal adversary. Each day China holds the crew and the plane should daily remind inattentive Americans that China's regnant comrades are fiercely engaged fighting a war we hardly know we are in.