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Bamboo diplomacy

International | The United States and China finally came to an agreement last week to return detained U.S. Navy personnel. But the incident may have altered the long-term U.S.-China landscape, raising new questions about U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, U.S. trade relations with China, and whether China will host the 2008 Olympics

Issue: "Showing the alternative," April 21, 2001

The old Chinese scholars had a fondness for bamboo. They called the wood "thin gentleman" and promoted it in art and culture as a symbol of the male ideal: an ability to bend without breaking and a hollowed-out core to adapt to changing circumstances with humility.

At the end of a nearly two-week standoff between China and the United States, it was not the gentlemanliness of either side so much as linguistic flexibility that carried the day. The Chinese government was unbending in its demand for an apology after a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter collided over international waters. President George W. Bush was equally rigid that the United States would give no such apology or admission of guilt. But a carefully worded written statement of regret by the United States-along with some translation limberness-smoothed the way for an April 11 announcement that China would release the 24 American servicemen and women.

The statement contained in a letter from U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Tang Jiaxuan said Americans were "very sorry" for the Chinese pilot's probable death and "very sorry" that the U.S. Navy's

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EP-3E spy plane crossed Chinese airspace and landed on China's Hainan Island without permission. In Chinese state media, those words carried more precise and acceptable weight when translated into Chinese. Throughout the 11-day standoff the Chinese government-run press has hammered the U.S. crew for landing the crippled aircraft in China "without permission," something akin to showing up at the emergency room without phoning first for an appointment. Yet the narrow acknowledgment of regret seemed to absolve the crew and pave the way for their release.

China's gambit is about more than saving face. When the sophisticated EP-3E dropped out of the sky onto Hainan Island, the communist regime saw an undeniable opportunity to improve its own military technology, to go head-to-head with the world's lone superpower, and to mount a successful distraction for ongoing misdeeds and internal debates.

As to the technology, China emerges a clear winner. Lost in concern over the crew's welfare has been the ultimate fate of the plane itself. Return of the EP-3E is not on the docket until after an April 18 meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials. And the Pentagon seems resigned to taking back a stripped hull if it ever is returned. Satellite images show Chinese soldiers boarding the plane shortly after its capture and carrying equipment from it. The EP-3E's crew members underwent hours of questioning about the plane's operation and individual crew functions. Members of Congress denounced those moves as "technical invasions of American territory."

The plane has probably provided Beijing "not only with technology and information to help hide its own military activities from the United States and others, but also with critical knowledge of how to monitor other militaries' movements," according to George Friedman, a threat assessment expert and chairman of Stratfor, a commercial intelligence company.

China's yield from the heist is probably sizeable. China's military has developed a habit for what defense experts call "reverse engineering," working backward from stolen technology to recreate its own applications. A 1999 bipartisan congressional report concluded that China has stolen data on "every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal." That gave China the ability to bypass its competition in the production of both long-range, strategic weaponry and medium-range, mobile missiles.

Now China has turned its focus to developing a "blue-water" navy, one that is capable of operating far from its 7,500-mile seashore, toward Taiwan and other contested territory. Military analysts say China is on the verge of introducing new submarine classes, too, and may already have done so-hence the increased U.S. surveillance. It may now use EP-3E technology to evade monitoring. In the meantime, the standoff has lead to a calling off, at least temporarily, of the Navy's EP-3E surveillance flights.

Although the standoff for China has been an image buster, that may be only temporary. In the long view, going head-to-head militarily with the United States allowed China to strike stronger poses. The image of a high-tech U.S. aircraft stranded on the Chinese tarmac portrayed the strength of China's own military at a time when it is plagued with bad press. One week before the collision, U.S. officials confirmed that a senior officer in China's People's Liberation Army defected to the United States. The officer, Xu Junping, specialized in "American issues" and is a disarmament expert. China's military has been set back also by the publication of the Tiananmen Papers, inside documents confirming that its top brass ordered strikes against student demonstrators during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

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