The profound national humiliation that President Bush has brought upon the United States may be forgotten temporarily when the American aircrew, held captive in China as this magazine goes to press, return home. But when we finish celebrating, it will be time to assess the damage done, and the dangers invited, by the administration's behavior.
To begin such an assessment, we need to review what has happened.
On April 1, a Chinese fighter intercepted an American surveillance aircraft flying a routine mission over international waters in the South China Sea. There was a collision. The exact circumstances are as yet unknown. Did the American plane "bank" into the Chinese jet? Or did the Chinese jet bump into the American plane's nose cone? It doesn't matter. What caused the accident were the unusually aggressive and extremely dangerous maneuvers of the Chinese pilot, who was flying so close to the American aircraft as to increase substantially the chances for a collision. There are common sense rules of the road for how the game is played. The Chinese pilot was recklessly violating those rules, like the guy who tailgates two inches off your bumper going 75 miles an hour. In circumstances such as these, it doesn't matter who bumps whom. Blame for the accident falls on the one who deliberately created such a dangerous situation.
Much attention has been paid to the particular Chinese pilot, who it seems had a history of just such reckless flying. But this misses the larger point. The decision to fly Chinese fighters dangerously close to American surveillance planes was made by the Chinese government in Beijing, not by any maverick Chinese aviator. In recent months, Chinese fighters had grown increasingly bold in their interception tactics, all part of a broader effort by the Chinese government to flex its muscles in the South China Sea. The Chinese want the United States to get out of the South China Sea. Why? Because it would be a key sea lane in the event of a conflict with Taiwan. Step one in this campaign is forcing American surveillance planes to stay out of the area. So the Chinese government consciously increased the risk to U.S. planes, and to its own pilots, in order to improve its strategic position. The accident, in short, was the direct consequence of a deliberate Chinese policy.
The accident also occurred despite repeated warnings by the United States that the new Chinese policy was dangerous. In December and January, after a number of close calls, top Pentagon officials formally protested the new Chinese tactics. The United States, they made clear, did not intend to renounce its right to fly in international airspace, but Chinese policy was vastly increasing the risk to everyone. The Chinese government ignored the protests. Then last week the inevitable happened and a Chinese pilot lost his life. It is a miracle, and a tribute to one American pilot's skill, that 24 Americans did not go down with him.
Instead, they made an emergency landing in China, whereupon they were taken hostage by the Chinese government. It is hardly surprising that the Chinese government boarded the plane and searched it for information about American intelligence-gathering capabilities, despite American insistence that the plane remained, even in China, the sovereign territory of the United States according to international law. What was a good deal more surprising was the Chinese government's announcement of the conditions for the crew's release: The American government would have to make a formal apology.
There has been no end of speculation by America's revered China experts as to why the Chinese would make such a baffling demand. The Chinese government is getting ready for President Jiang Zemin's "retirement" in 2002, and during such moments of succession, would-be Chinese leaders need to woo the powerful and virulently anti-American Chinese military and intelligence services. In addition, there has been a surge of nationalist fervor in China, especially since the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade two years ago. True, the Chinese government has helped stir up these nationalist passions in an attempt to compensate for the bankruptcy of Communist ideology. But now the government, we are told, is the victim of its own device. No Chinese leader can afford to look "soft" in a confrontation with the United States. Then there is the matter of Chinese culture, which places an unusually high premium on honor and "face." To admit Chinese error, or even to accept mutual responsibility for this kind of accident, would cause the Chinese leadership to lose face and suffer humiliation before its own people.