Is It Really Any Wonder That the Chinese Are Sore Over Spy Plane?

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Chinese military police march past the U.S. embassy in Beijing

It's hardly surprising Beijing hasn't rushed to hand over a U.S. spy plane and its 24-man crew involved in a mid-air collision with a Chinese air force fighter on Sunday. To understand why, flip the script for a moment: Imagine a Chinese plane flying a surveillance mission off the Florida coast colliding with an Air Force F-16 sent on an aggressive monitoring mission. The U.S. fighter goes down and the pilot is lost; the Chinese plane is forced to land on U.S. soil. The incident occurs at a moment when China is about to supply a package of sophisticated weapons to Cuba (possibly including the very same model spy plane now in U.S. hands); is planning to deploy a missile shield that would neutralize the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and has signaled that curbing U.S. regional ambitions is to become the organizing principle of its military doctrine. Imagine further that the incident comes two years after Chinese bombs had destroyed (albeit inadvertently) a U.S. embassy in Europe... It's unlikely Americans would feel in a particularly forgiving mood, either.

Still, both in its more aggressive response to U.S. patrols around its airspace and in its detention of the downed surveillance plane, China — or at least some hawkish elements in the Chinese leadership — appear set on playing hard ball. Although China's announcement Monday that it would grant the U.S. access to the detained personnel appeared to signal that there are limits as to how far Beijing wants to push President Bush into a crisis, the fact that Chinese sources reported that the plane had been boarded in defiance of the U.S. insistence that it is sovereign territory suggests a more provocative stance.

The air crash in the South China Sea couldn't have come at a worse time for the President, precisely because relations between Washington and Beijing have been deteriorating over the U.S. plan to build a national missile defense system and, more immediately, its proposed sale of destroyers equipped with the sophisticated Aegis anti-missile system to Taiwan. Comments by Bush administration hawks — most notably Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's recommendation that containing China become the strategic focus of U.S. military doctrine — have done little to sweeten the atmosphere in which U.S. diplomats must now persuade their Chinese counterparts to hand back the crew and the plane. Taking a look around the plane will certainly be tempting to the Chinese military, since the EP-3 is on Taiwan's shopping list.

Recent history and the events since the U.S. plane landed in China suggest, the standoff, and its repercussions, won't be quickly resolved. The plane crash is quickly shaping up as the most serious international challenge to have confronted President Bush precisely because it comes on the eve of his decision over whether to sell the Aegis-equipped vessels to Taiwan. Administration officials had previously expressed concern that Beijing had turned the issue into a test of manhood, thereby limiting both sides' room for maneuver; the standoff over the crashed airplane is likely only to raise the stakes.