Apology Set The Right Tone For Chinese-American Relations

13 April 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Fears of conflict with our "strategic competitor -- um, I mean, partner" -- China have been raised early in the term of a president who promised a much less conciliatory foreign policy than his predecessor. A collision between an American plane and a Chinese fighter led to a two-week diplomatic crisis as China demanded an apology from Washington. The Bush Administration maintained that the United States has, to the best of its knowledge, done nothing wrong and, therefore, should not have to apologize.

Under growing pressure to resolve the issue and return the 24 American detainees quickly, Bush expressed his "regret" in a letter of condolence to the widow of the Chinese pilot and Secretary of State Colin Powell said the administration is "sorry" for the death. Beijing responded positively, hailing the more apologetic language as a step forward. Wednesday the administration took the last step, issuing a letter that stated the United States was "very sorry" for the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei and for the American plane's unauthorized landing on Hainan. Though vindication would have been nice, returning the detained American personnel was the foremost task.

The apology rests on the idea that the United States would be taking the blame for the incident. "Since the U.S. side has done something wrong first," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said, "it is purely their responsibility to apologize." Many on this side of the Pacific resist that claim, maintaining that the Chinese fighter caused the crash by harassing the U.S. aircraft. Furthermore, there has been no investigation yet as to which party, if either, is responsible for the crash.

But this issue is about more than one crash. The incident has become a flash point for Chinese outrage at routine American surveillance of their nation. Washington, denying China's claim to the Spratly Islands and the territorial waters that come with them, maintains that the fighter was over international waters and therefore perfectly within its rights to be doing as it pleased. Indeed, the letter that secured the release of the 24 Americans avoided apologizing for violating Chinese airspace. Sovereignty over the airspace the American aircraft occupied is not so important, however, as what the plane was doing in that airspace.

The United States was spying on China. Chinese leaders know that American aircraft routinely fly reconnaissance missions along the Chinese coast, but are usually unable to do anything about it. This particular crew tried to destroy as much of the data it had collected before Chinese authorities arrived, to keep our intelligence out of Chinese hands. And we continue to spy on China, from the air and space -- recent satellite imagery was detailed enough to determine that the Chinese had not opened the fuselage of the American plane.

Spying is not a surprising activity when done by any nation. But that does not make it permissible. It is perfectly within the rights of a nation to take action against known foreign agents (as the United States and Russia recently did) and prevent other nations from collecting intelligence. So no matter how routine it was, the American plane's mission was neither defensible nor harmless. This act alone qualifies as the United States doing something wrong first. The Chinese refusal to accept the Bush Administration's initial expressions of regret for the death of the Chinese pilot suggests that the spying is what they wanted the United States to admit to.

Many conservatives, advocating a harder stance on foreign policy issues, predict dire consequences from a U.S. apology. The Weekly Standard editorialized that conciliatory moves brought "profound national humiliation" on the United States. An apology is seen as a sign of weakness, giving China the upper hand.

But what, besides a sting to our pride, do we lose by saying "sorry"? Turning a little humility, taken on for the greater good, into "profound national humiliation" exhibits the exact kind of arrogance that Americans are stereotyped for abroad, a stereotype that puts a dark cloud over international negotiations. It is possible that China may want proof of our repentance in the form of reduced reconnaissance flights such as the one involved in the collision. With satellites powerful enough to spot trucks on the airfield where the downed American aircraft is being held, this doesn't seem too costly a move. Indeed, plane surveillance may become obsolete in the near future, especially if the armed forces make good use of the defense spending increases in Bush's recently submitted budget. Moreover, a reduction in flights makes a poor excuse when spying is not a truly defensible act to begin with.

On the other hand, we have gained much by apologizing: the return of 24 Americans. With the return of these individuals comes more than just 24 lives. The United States can now bargain from a position of greater power and security since Beijing does not have those men and women to use as an implicit bargaining chip. The crisis is not completely resolved, as the American aircraft is still in Chinese hands. But the United States has more options and flexibility to bring to the table now that China holds only a wrecked aircraft rather than 24 Americans' freedom.

Many conservatives have suggested other avenues of persuading China to acquiesce to U.S. demands. These methods boil down to threats. The United States could threaten to block Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. We could block progress on opening up trade between China and the United States. Or we could finally sell Taiwan the weapons it wants, which have been withheld for fear of provoking Chinese retaliation.

These actions would do more harm than good to Chinese-American relations. Blocking the choice of Beijing for the 2008 Summer Games would be a clear violation of the ostensibly non-political nature and purpose of the Olympics. Free trade is as much of benefit to the United States as it is to China, especially to American farmers who will be receiving less aid under Bush's new budget.

Selling arms to Taiwan is the worst solution. That would involve essentially giving up on all diplomacy of any type with Beijing. Selling arms to Taiwan would recognize the island as an independent nation. Since China still views Taiwan as a renegade province, the United States would essentially be picking sides in a civil war. With Chinese-American relations improving after a potential hostage crisis was averted, there is little reason to trigger an unnecessary war, which would cost far more than 24 lives.

The Bush administration apologized sooner than I would have expected. I'm sorry I underestimated our new leaders.

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