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
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.
Standing tall is important in the region. China is determined to replace the United States-both economically and militarily-as the force to contend with in East Asia. The standoff was meant as a preview of tensions to come if the Bush administration follows through with a plan to sell advanced destroyers to Taiwan. Prior to the mid-air collision, Mr. Bush was scheduled to approve this month the sale of the destroyers, capable of carrying Aegis radar systems. That equipment would substantially counter China's growing naval presence.
And while China was playing diplomatic hardball, important issues relating to its record on human rights were swept cleanly off the front pages. The United States this week is scheduled to introduce a resolution in Geneva at the annual UN Commission on Human Rights condemning China's record on conduct toward civilians. A U.S. delegate to the convention confirmed that the resolution had yet to pick up a single co-sponsor. Most states are loathe to take on China, anyway, but more reluctant with the high-stakes tussle over the EP-3E dominating the news. China is expected to go unchallenged, too, when it counters the resolution with a "no debate" resolution of its own, foreclosing all discussion of its record. Human-rights groups believe President Jiang Zemin pressed on with a visit to Latin America, in spite of his crisis with the United States, because he needed Latin American support to defeat the U.S. resolution in Geneva.
Those groups condemned Beijing's publication last week of a "white paper" showing progress on human rights. It highlighted improvements in the general standard of living and in "people's rights to subsistence" at a time when rural education and other programs in mainland China are collapsing. It emphasized a guarantee of political rights, despite recent arrests of Falun Gong members, the burning of Christian churches, and the arrest of two Chinese scholars, one a U.S. citizen and the other a legal U.S. resident. Beijing hopes to persuade other countries that it is changing, even as it holds Americans in violation of at least two signed treaties.
With the Navy's EP-3E crew safely homeward bound, the Bush administration adeptly weathered its first international storm. What remains to be seen is what may have been traded away for calmer seas: weapons sales to Taiwan, Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics, or the U.S. scholars who are still jailed in China. Members of Congress returning from an Easter recess that spanned the crisis will want answers. "We've only accomplished half our goal," said Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts. "China still has our plane, and holding it is an illegal act."
Other lawmakers threaten to revive debate on China's trade status. Even business die-hards acknowledge that Congress is likely to revisit trade as a result of the conflict. Congress last summer approved permanent normal trade relations with China, on the condition that it meet standards for entry into the World Trade Organization by June. It is questionable now whether it can meet those conditions.
Some conservatives, too, remain critical of the Bush administration's conciliatory approach to Beijing. They urged the president to recall the U.S. ambassador, speed up weapons sales to Taiwan, and restrict U.S.-China exchanges while China's military held the Navy flight crew. The most apparent punishment was an order by Secretary of State Colin Powell to his diplomatic corps, forbidding them to attend a party welcoming Yang Jiechi as the new Chinese ambassador to Washington.
All point to a president still very much under scrutiny. Can Mr. Bush live up to
his oft-repeated campaign pledge to "deal with China without ill will-but without illusions"?