Four Key Lessons

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It was popular last week to note that the U.S. relationship with China may be the most important one on the planet. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about it--even people who didn't know what they were talking about (sometimes on TV). But behind the scenes, Washington's power brokers learned some things from this awkward engagement. Below, four lessons that will shape future policy:

1 Fly Unmanned
Don't risk $80 million and 24 lives when you can avoid it

As the EP-3E crew members winged their way back from China, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent them a congratulatory message. "You put your lives at risk," he told them, "so that the citizens of a grateful nation can live their lives in peace and freedom." Which raises a key question: Is it really necessary, with all the Pentagon's technological wizardry, to dispatch repeatedly two dozen of the nation's youngest and finest into the teeth of the Chinese dragon?

A lot of intelligence work can be done without putting Americans in harm's way. The Pentagon has a constellation of spy satellites that can photograph and listen in to many sites of interest to U.S. spooks. U.S. submarines, safely lurking beneath the South China Sea and other seas bordering countries of interest to Washington, can suck in a plethora of communications and other militarily significant transmissions.

Most important, the U.S. military's growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles--UAVs to the military, drones to everybody else--is increasing in sophistication and capability. Rumsfeld, conducting an exhaustive review of how the U.S. wages war, is convinced the time has come to rely more on cheap drones. Last year Congress--concerned over the American public's skittishness about U.S. casualties--told the Pentagon it wants one-third of U.S. bombing missions flown by unmanned warplanes by 2010.

The Pentagon took a key step toward unmanned aerial warfare in February, when a $3 million Predator drone that was initially designed for spying was able to destroy a tank by aiming and firing a Hellfire missile with help from its ground-based controller.

The drone's benefits are obvious: without people aboard, costs can be slashed because expensive life-support systems such as oxygen supplies, ejection seats, fire-suppression systems and armor aren't needed. The nimbleness and speed of today's fighters aren't limited by weak engines or fuselage stress limits but by the human body's inability to withstand high G-forces, a problem that would disappear in a pilotless plane.

The U.S., however, is in no mood right now to back away from manned flights along the Chinese coast. Such a move would be seen in Beijing as a victory for the hard-liners there who wanted to hang on to the EP-3E's 24-member crew.

Moreover, any drone capable of replicating the EP-3E mission is far down the road. After all, the Air Force only now is building Global Hawk drones at $50 million a pop to replace the venerable U-2 spy planes. The new drones, capable of loitering high over hostile terrain for more than a day, should be flying real-world missions by 2010--a full half-century after the Soviet Union shot down Francis Gary Powers' U-2.

2 Watch China's Wall
Tempting as it is to think hard-liners have been phased out, they still matter. A lot

President Jiang Zemin learned that hard-line generals who live by the sword might lie for the sword. Although nobody has revealed just what he knew and when, U.S. officials surmise that China's leader read military reports saying exactly what the state-run media announced: that the pilot of the U.S. spy plane had "rammed" the Chinese fighter, then "invaded" Chinese airspace. So, naturally, Jiang demanded an end to surveillance flights and an apology. Talks stalled immediately. Frustrated U.S. diplomats involved in the negotiations concluded it was "very possible" that the military presented Jiang "a set of facts at odds with what really happened."

Once the generals had Jiang's ear, though, they bent it hard. It's significant that after keeping mum for two days, Jiang opened with a demand to end surveillance flights; only a day later did he call for an apology. "Ending spy flights is what the military wants, so Jiang demanded it first," explains a former editor for the Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily.

But it was an unwinnable point. The U.S. had no intention of stopping the flights. Jiang had maneuvered onto strategic ground that was impossible to hold. The U.S. drove the lesson home by offering a limited and lawyerly apology that forced Jiang into a humiliating retreat. China's military did find a way to milk the event for some national credit, most notably when Defense Minister Chi Haotian met Wang Wei's widow and demanded that the U.S. not "shirk responsibility."

The bum steer by its military was also a reminder that China needs better coordination. Last year Beijing established a body similar to the National Security Council to ensure that information gets shared. But in its first test, the new body failed Jiang. "Maybe now the government will speed up this arrangement," says a foreign policy adviser in Beijing.

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