'Culture Gap Fuels U.S.-China Standoff'

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TIME.com: Given your years of experience in Beijing, what factors would you say U.S. officials need to bear in mind in diplomatic efforts to bring this to a conclusion?

Jaime Florcruz: The first is to restrain government officials and the general public from making incendiary remarks. Any insinuation, as I've heard in talk shows and web sites, of starting a boycott of Chinese goods or mounting demonstrations would simply add poison to the already bad atmosphere and won't help find a speedy resolution. In a democratic and free society you can't tell people not to speak their minds. But government would be well advised to refrain from incendiary remarks.

Also, I think the administration needs to quickly put together its China team so that they have seasoned diplomats with specialized knowledge of China. At the moment they don't have a strong team doing that. The Chinese need to be reassured that the administration has a coherent and clear-cut policy toward China, and a qualified, competent team pursuing that policy. Beijing needs to know that the Bush administration has a clear vision of where it wants to take the relationship, and to disabuse the Chinese of their lingering suspicion that the U.S. wants to encircle China and prevent it from becoming modern and prosperous, and to turn it into the new Evil Empire.

And the Chinese have reason to be suspicious. President Bush's election rhetoric, combined with the administration's characterizing of China as a "strategic competitor" in contrast to the previous administration's terming it a "strategic partner," has given them cause for concern, and of course the Chinese see national missile defense as aimed at them. So all of this is prompting the Chinese to ask whether the U.S. really wants friendship, or whether they're being set up as a new Evil Empire.

Most importantly, perhaps, the administration should resist the temptation to link the resolution of the Hainan standoff with other issues, such as China's accession to the World Trade Organization, their bid to host the Olympics in 2008, and arms sales to Taiwan. It would be dangerous and myopic to link all those issues and turn them into a single win-or-lose game. Each issue should be decided on its own merits — as the administration is saying it will do.

Once a tentative agreement is reached on returning the crew, Washington should also really consider sending a special emissary or envoy on behalf of President Bush with a message. A personal appearance would give face to the Chinese, allow Beijing to show the Chinese people that here is a representative of the U.S., not groveling but showing magnanimity.

What does the spy-plane standoff portend for the future of the U.S.-China relationship, and what lessons might both sides take from it?

I hope both sides have learned the importance of engagement, particularly military-to-military engagement, which helps both sides to more accurately read each other's intentions. The worst-case scenario is for these two juggernaut militaries to be second-guessing each other. Both sides need a clear set of norms and protocols to guide them through such situations.

A second lesson is the need for cultural sensitivity. There's obviously a cultural gap between the two sides. The Chinese resent the fact that even before an investigation could be conducted, the Americans were blaming the accident on China, and expressing no concern over the fate of the Chinese pilot. From the Chinese point of view this speaks of callousness and arrogance.

It's reminiscent of China's complaint over the U.S. reaction to the Belgrade embassy bombing in 1999, when Beijing felt Washington was very slow to make a sincere apology.

The U.S. also doesn't seem to appreciate why the government in Beijing has to appear tough both in rhetoric and position. Chinese history is replete with tales of empires or governments collapsing because the people perceive them to be weak in the face of foreign bullying. So the government is under severe pressure to appear tough when the people think their national dignity is at stake.

The deeper immediate conflict between the U.S. and China, of course, is over arms sales to Taiwan. How will the spy-plane incident affect that?

Obviously the Bush administration will now be under more pressure to sell Taiwan the weapons Beijing has been lobbying against, which would further incense Beijing and make the Chinese believe the U.S. is egging Taiwan on to seek independence.

The U.S. is committed to meeting Taiwan's basic defense needs, but it should avoid disrupting the military balance between the island and the mainland. As I understand it from military experts in the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aegis system is not necessarily what Taiwan needs or is even capable of using right now in terms of training and logistics. The debate on arms sales to Taiwan should be conducted in an unemotional and pragmatic way, but that may be more difficult after this incident.

The basis of the U.S.-China relationship over the past 28 years has been the "One China" policy that recognizes the mainland and the island as part of a single entity. Is that policy under threat?

Well, the current showdown will certainly embolden politicians who reject the One China policy. And the Taiwanese could capitalize on this incident to justify its request for upgraded U.S. arms. There's a large strategic ambiguity in One China, but I think Washington has no real alternative but to persist with that ambiguity — maintaining the balance between the two sides, but refraining from giving Taiwan the impression that they have carte blanche to take more adventurist paths to independence, while signaling Beijing that an invasion would have enormous costs.

In the long term, the hope would be to get the two sides back to the negotiation table on the principle of One China, which is subject to each side's respective interpretations. I think Beijing has stood down from its original view that "One China" meant simply the People's Republic. Recent statements by Qian Qichen, Beijing's point person on Taiwan, explained that "One China" doesn't mean just the People's Republic. That's a significant change from its earlier position. But negotiation on that principle won't be easy, because Taiwan's President Chen Shubian is also a hostage to his own party and constituency, unable to steer back to the negotiation table. The Taiwan government is facing a lot of challenges internally as the political voice of the island's ethnic Taiwanese population, which is more independence-oriented, grows. So in the immediate future, this tension is likely to fester.