U.S. officials were expected to meet the crew of the downed EP-3E surveillance aircraft on the Chinese island of Hainan, Tuesday, at least 60 hours after they first demanded access. But even if the plane's personnel are safe and quickly returned home, the fact that Chinese officials appear to have boarded and inspected a U.S. aircraft chock-full of America's top-of-the-line electronic intelligence-gathering equipment could be a major setback for the Pentagon. Although the crew is reported to have begun destroying classified data and equipment, it's not yet clear whether the job was completed. And the fact that the Chinese inspected the plane despite Washington's insistence that it was sovereign U.S. territory President Bush twice within an hour on Monday urged the Chinese to send the plane home without "further tampering" is unlikely to earn brownie points with a U.S. administration that sees China as a strategic rival, rather than as a strategic partner (as President Clinton described Beijing). Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao poured scorn on the U.S. claim of plane's sovereignty on Tuesday, telling reporters, "If this plane is sovereign American territory, how did it land in China?"
Washington, plainly, wants to avoid escalating the standoff over the plane. President Bush used polite diplomatic language Monday despite his obvious frustration with China's slow response to U.S. requests, and the Navy ordered three of its destroyers to leave the region of Sunday's air crash, thus avoiding sending a signal that Beijing might interpret as hostile intent. Beijing's intentions are more difficult to gauge, given the fact that the Chinese leadership is far from monolithic. A fierce power struggle has raged for years between reformist modernizers and more hard-line hawks who fear that modernization is bringing dangerous social instability, the latter being inclined to view the U.S. in more adversarial terms. Still, it's likely that Beijing, too, will want to put a ceiling on the escalation of the spy-plane showdown.
But there are hawks and doves in Washington, too, and in the same way that China's leaders fear losing face by being cowed into doing Washington's bidding, U.S. leaders can ill afford to be seen as weak or irresolute when directly challenged by a foreign power. If Beijing's primary strategic objective right now is to curb U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the spy-plane standoff may not have helped their case. Because even if the incident serves as a wake-up call on the dangers of even minor confrontations, Beijing's flouting of U.S. concerns over the boarding of the plane may well also have reinforced President Bush's inclination to get tough with China.