No Easy Way Forward with China

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

April 3, 2001

The writer is director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University in Washington.

The most recent crisis in Chinese-American relations is escalating tensions with every passing hour and threatens to spiral the relationship out of control if not appropriately handled by the Chinese side. The Bush administration, for its part, has acquitted itself well so far by invoking international law and customary practice for dealing with such incidents.

The White House, the United States Pacific Command and American diplomats in China have been clear and reasonable in their expectations, moderate in their language and steady in this first international crisis for the new administration. By contrast, the Chinese government has obfuscated, has been accusatory and caustic in its official statements, and threatens to deepen the crisis by dragging it out and not acting cooperatively.

The Chinese have finally agreed to permit members of the American Embassy staff to have access today to the plane’s crew—as they are required to do under bilateral treaties and international law. But, significantly, China has not indicated how it intends to proceed from then on in this delicate matter.

Beijing’s silence is worrying. It likely indicates deep divisions at the top of the government, the Chinese military and Communist Party, and it suggests that at least one faction is calling for drastic action. The worst outcome would be for the American crew to be charged with espionage and infringement of Chinese sovereign air space, in which case there would probably be a show trial with forced “confessions,” followed by release of the crew—but not necessarily of the plane. Such a course of action would incalculably damage bilateral relations and would affect the balance of power in Asia and the Pacific.

Of course the plane was spying on China, as EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft regularly do every day by patrolling up and down the Chinese coastline. But this has been going on for much of the past half-century.

If the worst case did come to pass, it would not be unlike the Pueblo incident in 1968, in which North Korea seized an American spy ship and held its crew of 82 for 11 months. The Chinese side would attempt to satisfy hard-line domestic opinion and factions through humiliation of the American “hegemon,” as the United States is regularly called in Chinese official and public circles, while ultimately American priorities would lie with regaining a healthy crew.

There are undoubtedly factions in the Chinese military, internal security services and Communist Party elite who are arguing for such extreme action. They may finally feel an opportunity to pay Washington back for a long list of incidents they see as aggression: the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999; the boarding and inspection of the Chinese ship Yinhe, which was suspected of carrying poison gas to Iran, on the high seas in 1993; Americans’ work to deny Beijing the Olympic Games for 2000 and 2008; annual condemnations of China’s human rights record; and other perceived affronts.

This is the backdrop of the sense of aggrievement felt by many in China. None of it excuses the Chinese government’s current behavior in this crisis, but it helps to explain the dynamics at work in the Chinese leadership.

In this context, Beijing has watched the new presidency of George W. Bush with deep suspicions. The administration’s rhetoric about China being a “strategic competitor” and the statements by senior American officials that China needs to be “checked” combine in the Chinese mind with the administration’s professed desire to strengthen American alliances all around China and proceed with global missile defense despite strong Chinese protests to create what many in China conclude is tantamount to a new policy of containment.

Perhaps Beijing’s greatest fear is that Washington will proceed in the weeks ahead to provide Taiwan with a robust package of arms and military equipment. Regardless of the outcome, the current crisis will undoubtedly fuel the hawkish atmosphere in Washington in support of these sales.

The Sino-American relationship has experienced some severe shocks over the dozen years since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but it has nonetheless exhibited an ability to live with a certain degree of tension and mutual suspicion without deteriorating into a new cold war. This is because there are powerful reasons for the two powers to remain positively engaged, and powerful constituencies on both sides for doing so. An adversarial relationship helps neither side, although it is pushed by conservative elements and defense industrialists in both countries.

Yet one senses that with the current crisis, relations are at a defining moment. Despite the visit to Washington last week by Qian Qichen, China’s vice premier, and the generally conciliatory tack he took, Beijing has not gained a sure footing with the Bush administration. It could decide to defuse the crisis through releasing the plane and crew, thus stabilizing relations, or it could push the relationship into a new stage of hostility.

Ultimately, the crisis will be resolved against the backdrop of domestic Chinese politics, the ongoing leadership succession process, the insecurity apparent in the government’s recent handling of the Falun Gong movement and other nagging domestic issues. Also in play are the staunch conservatism in the party-military establishment and the popular nationalistic desire for “payback” against the American hegemon. This combination of indigenous variables does not augur well for a quick and peaceful resolution.