Why Powell Needs American Patience Over China Standoff

  • Share
  • Read Later

Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses reporters

Patience may be a mainstay of diplomacy, but it's not exactly the coin of the realm in a talk-show culture. Which is why placating the U.S. public may become a crucial challenge for the Bush administration in the coming days as it moves quietly to untangle the spy-plane imbroglio and bring home the 24 U.S. servicemen and women and their aircraft. Mindful of the fact that public pressure on Beijing is more likely to prolong than resolve the crisis, Washington worked to cool the temperature of the dispute Wednesday: No more clock-is-ticking public statements by President Bush. Instead, Secretary of State Colin Powell was on point, issuing a statement of regret that, while well short of the apology the Chinese had demanded, shifted the tone away from the language of confrontation; he then hand-delivered a letter to Beijing's most senior diplomat setting out Washington's ideas for a diplomatic resolution. Most important, perhaps, the contents of that letter were not shared with the media. President Bush on Thursday echoed Powell’s statement of regret, although he also said China must act quickly to return the U.S. personnel.

China analysts welcome the new approach, designed to give Beijing's arcane political process the space to find its own way to an amicable resolution of the standoff. Not surprisingly, given sharp differences within the Chinese leadership over how to relate to the U.S. in general, the initial reactions from China were mixed: Some diplomats welcomed Powell's statement as a step in the right direction; others insisted it was not enough. China agreed to further visits to the detained crew members of the EP-3 spy plane, but also revealed that the U.S. personnel were being questioned as part of the Chinese investigation. Still, Powell's letter is an attempt to forge a common approach with Beijing to fashion a mutually acceptable path toward a resolution, and that's something China needs as badly as the U.S. does. After all, this crisis was not precipitated by either side, and it's been a hot potato in the laps of both Washington and Beijing.

Considerable hostility among Chinese

Still, even if the leaders on both sides — hawk- vs.-dove differences in both capitals notwithstanding — need to bring the matter to a close, their room for maneuver may also be limited by domestic political concerns. China's closed authoritarian system is nonetheless complex, with a number of rival power centers competing to shape the national agenda as President Jiang Zemin acts as a ringmaster, mindful of the need to shape his own succession and also, to a degree, of Chinese public opinion. The fallout from the accidental U.S. bombing of China's Belgrade embassy two years ago also revealed the depths of nationalist hostility to the U.S. in China's cities, and Jiang was criticized for being too forgiving over the incident. Given the way China's state-controlled media have portrayed the spy-plane incident — as an invasion of Chinese air space in which a Chinese plane was brought down by an aggressive maneuver by a U.S. aircraft — Beijing has stirred up similar public sentiment, which may have limited the leadership's space to seek a quick resolution.

The modulated response from Washington appears mindful of the difficulties faced by the Chinese leadership in finding a way to resolve the matter to mutual satisfaction. But for the U.S. public, the fact remains that 24 U.S. servicemen and women are being held in Hainan, and while a Pentagon spokesman Wednesday was unable to answer a question as to their exact status, the word "hostage" is being increasingly cited on talk radio and television. On Capitol Hill, too, while party leaders on both sides of the aisle are rallying behind the Bush administration's handling of the crisis, there are growing calls for various forms of economic and political pressure on Beijing. The diplomatic route may be ultimately more productive, but it's also necessarily a prolonged one, and that won't sit comfortably with U.S. TV audiences watching yellow ribbons flutter in the northwestern breeze and hearing talking heads make ludicrous comparisons to the Iran hostage crisis. The Bush administration may need the active support of congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle in the coming days to head off domestic political pressure for a stronger stand. Because one thing Americans don't like is feeling powerless.