How Beijing Could End the Spy-Plane Standoff

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Chinese military form a line outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing By the tone of today's comments by Secretary of State Powell, it would appear that Beijing is moving toward negotiating a solution to the standoff with Washington. Is there any sign that China may soften its demand that the U.S. apologize?

Matt Forney: The person in charge of Beijing's decision-making here is President Jiang Zemin. No other senior leaders have even commented on the issue yet. The way most Chinese analysts interpret his demand for an apology is that what he wants is some face from the U.S. He's saying it's not enough to demand the return of the plane and crew or to blame China; he is insisting the U.S. acknowledge some form of culpability and share responsibility for the incident.

Now that the U.S. has begun to do that with expressions of regret over the loss of the pilot, China, too, has softened its position. The question now is whether Beijing will be prepared to accept anything less than an apology as a condition for handing back the Americans. The answer to that question is probably yes.

So what's the quid pro quo here? What steps does Jiang need from the Americans in order to take the steps Washington wants him to take?

Most important of all, Jiang needs political cover to end the standoff. His legacy is built on statesmanship. He wants to be remembered as the guy who steered China to a prominent place on the international stage. And he can't do that if relations with U.S. deteriorate on his watch. But while he must patch up relations with the U.S., he can't do that unless the U.S. gives him something in return — in this case, face. This could be resolved pretty quickly if President Bush called Jiang on their hotline and directly expressed some of the sentiments over the incident that he's expressed in public in recent days.

Politically speaking, has the standoff been good or bad for Jiang?

It's been good for him inside China, but it's forced him to strike a difficult balance. He has to take a hard line with the U.S. to please his constituents, who won't allow him to look weak. But at the same time, he can't allow relations with the U.S. to go off a cliff because he needs them too badly to help realize other goals — China's accession to the World Trade Organization, its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, and its efforts to dissuade Washington from selling Taiwan the Aegis anti-missile system. So if Jiang allows the standoff to drag out too long, he risks blowing his relationship with Washington. But if he resolves it too quickly, he risks blowing his relationship with hard-liners in Beijing. On the whole, though, if he can move to wrap this up now and persuade the Bush administration not to sell Taiwan the Aegis system, he'll emerge very strong. His trip to Latin America at the height of the standoff was certainly a sign of confidence.

But what if part of the fallout from the spy plane standoff is that Washington goes ahead with the Aegis sale?

Jiang is extremely vulnerable to the Aegis sale, precisely because China has put so much diplomatic effort into blocking it. It was the single most important issue in U.S.-China relations from Beijing's perspective. That gave the U.S. a great deal of leverage, which Washington would obviously like to keep for a long time. So an emerging option for the U.S. is to authorize the construction of the Arleigh-Burke destroyers that carry the Aegis (which would take up to eight years) but not authorize their sale to Taiwan — at least not yet. They could build the ships as if for the U.S. Navy, and authorize the sale later. That would extend Washington's leverage. And while it wouldn't be good for Jiang, it wouldn't be as bad for him as it would if the U.S. immediately authorized the sale. Even if they held off on authorizing the Aegis sale, the U.S. would probably still supply a very robust package of arms to Taiwan. China has made the Aegis system the focus of its objection, so it may not be in that strong a position to reject other weapons sales.

Has the U.S.-China relationship suffered permanent damage over the Hainan standoff?

It's unlikely that the trade relationship would suffer, and the U.S. would probably still support China's entry into the WTO, which is strongly advocated by the U.S. business community. It's unlikely also to affect China's bid to host the Olympics. But the more worrisome trend that the incident has highlighted is that the conflicts between the two countries are increasingly concerned with military affairs, rather than simply politics and economics. And that could be dangerous in the future.