America Must Take Responsibility In Settlement With China

19 February 1999

By Stentor Danielson

You hopefully remember that, during the ill-guided offensive waged by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) against Yugoslavia, an American missile laid waste to the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. You might not remember the tardiness of America's apology for its mistake.

Now, U.S. officials are finally getting around to negotiating a damages settlement for China and the people affected by the attack. Our offer of $4.5 million is not a sum to be lauged at, but the attitude of negotiators in their recent dealings with China does not make a great deal of sense.

First off, there seems to be the notion that China will respond with damage payments for the broken windows and other vandalism that occurred at the U.S. embassy in Beijing during retaliatory protests.

It is true that China technically is responsible for those damages. Chinese citizens threw the rocks and the Chinese government was deliberately slow in announcing the United States' apology when it finally arrived.

But more importantly, the United States was responsible for starting the conflict in the first place. The Chinese would have had no reason to lash out at the embassy had the bombs never been launched. Stalling on admitting the mistake did not help to soothe the Chinese demonstrators, either. In light of that, Washington's demand for remuneration seems rather petty.

But American politicians seem to have an inability to shoulder the blame if they can find a way to pin some of it on someone else. Instead of saying "OK, we really screwed up. How can we make it up to you?" they have told the Chinese, "Well, we did some things to you, but you also did some things to us, and we're holding you responsible for them." The politicians have already drawn up a detailed list of exactly what damages they believe China owes the United States.

This sounds suspiciously like an attempt to shift the blame. While it might technically be fair that the Chinese pay for what they did, demanding that they do so makes it seem like we are trying to shirk our responsibility. The focus ought to remain on the stupid mistake by the American military that started the whole fiasco, not on the Chinese reaction.

Another odd point in the negotiations relates to the punishment of those individuals whose mistakes led to the bombing. China has quite rightly asked that measures be taken against these folks, yet the United States does not seem to like that idea.

This unwillingness to take responsibility comes in the face of Chinese doubt about the American explanation of the bombing. It is hard to blame them for being skeptical when the most technologically advanced nation in the world pleads that its bombing campaign relied on outdated maps.

Failing to appropriately chastise those people who allowed an accident of this magnitude to occur is rather suspicious. If the United States is truly as sorry as it claims to be and the mistake was truly due to a cartographic mix-up, some people should have been fired even before the apology reached Beijing.

Do we want our military run by people capable of authoring such an embarassing incident? China has every right to be suspicious that Washington's excuse is not as simple as it seems.

Problems with the embassy bombing negotiations have spilled over into other issues as well. Washington-Beijing relations now are tense at best. China has stalled work on human rights issues and possible entry into the World Trade Organization until the bombing compensation is resolved. It is not in the United States' best interest to let its pride damage its future relations with China.

The problem at the heart of the failure of the United States to shoulder the blame for bombing the Chinese embassy is one that Washington will face again and again in the coming years. Ever since the end of World War II, the United States has been the world's leading power.

Our big guns and fat wallets have tempted us to believe that we can run the world. Recent incidents in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq highlight this sense that America is the world's baby-sitter.

But that dream won't last long. Other countries are getting old enough to spend the evening alone. China is one of the front-runners in the race to superpowerdom, and the United States is rightly afraid.

After so long as the loudest voice in world politics, Washington fears that it might eventually have to treat other nations as its equals. The refusals to dismiss demands for compensation for the damages sustained by the American embassy and to punish the culprits in the bombing in Belgrade seem calculated to show China who's the boss. The United States wants to establish a position of superiority in international negotiations, lest China forget which nation is the superpower.

The United States needs to come to its senses and get used to the idea that it is not alone in the world. Some simple concessions to China could go a long way toward smoothing Washington's relationship with what is potentially its biggest rival. It would also be good practice for when China comes into its own.

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