China Standoff: Why the Deal Was Done

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A Chinese government official on Hainan announces the deal

Nobody really "blinked," because Hainan was never quite High Noon. China agreed Wednesday to release 24 detained U.S. personnel on "humanitarian grounds," citing the fact that U.S. officials had expressed regret over the spy-plane incident and had acknowledged entering Chinese airspace without permission — but conveniently neglecting to mention that the U.S. had neither actually apologized nor assumed responsibility for the accident, and that its stricken aircraft had only entered Chinese airspace after being struck by a Chinese plane. Then again, although Washington maintained its vow not to apologize for the actual crash, it certainly went out of its way with intense diplomacy to create an opening for the Chinese to back away from confrontation. Despite its tough talk on China in the weeks preceding the standoff, the Bush administration handled the crisis with consummate cool, and the President will come through his first major international crisis with his stature considerably enhanced. Moreover, the ability of the leadership in both Washington and Beijing to find a way to help each other out of a dangerous crisis despite mounting tensions in the relationship bodes well for their prospects of managing looming conflicts over Taiwan and other issues.

Seemly haste

Despite the standoff dragging over 10 days, its resolution came rather quickly under the circumstances. After all, with President Jiang Zemin and his top foreign policy deputy traveling in Latin America and the complexity of Beijing's power structure (in which President Jiang has the final word, but not the executive authority of his U.S. counterpart) — and its clear disagreements over how to handle relations with the U.S. in general — observers had expected the standoff might drag on for at least another week. And with the U.S. Congress due to reconvene on Monday, that might have raised pressure on the White House for a tougher stand. But for both sides, allowing the crisis to fester carried more dangers than rewards, with public opinion hardening on both sides and threatening to narrow both governments' room to maneuver their way out of a crisis.

All along, Beijing made clear that what it really needed was political cover to hand back the detainees. President Jiang even made that much explicit last weekend by saying resolving the matter was as simple as saying "excuse me" after bumping into someone on a sidewalk. Chinese public opinion demanded that its government not be seen to lose face over the incident.

Bush grows

The challenge the collision presented for the Bush administration was even more daunting — and it came through with flying colors. Despite the fact that a foreign power was holding 24 Americans against their will and the punditocracy was tossing around words like "hostage" and "sanctions," the Bush team put all its tough talk of the campaign trail and the weeks preceding the crisis aside. In fact, it conspicuously avoided anything that could be vaguely construed as a threat, muzzling the hawks and allowing the diplomats to do their slow, frustrating work despite the relentless clamor of 24-hour TV news. Right through to President Bush's announcement of the breakthrough, which included a humane offer of condolences for the life of the lost Chinese pilot, it was a statesmanlike performance.

The apology the Chinese had originally demanded was always a nonstarter, because it would imply assuming responsibility for the incident, and by implication undertaking to avoid the actions that caused it. The U.S. is no more likely to stop patrolling international skies off China and monitoring its military activity than the Chinese are to stop buzzing U.S. aircraft. But Washington was in a bind, because it had no viable policy levers besides patiently choreographing a series of gestures with Beijing that the Chinese could spin as sufficient U.S. remorse. Economic pressure, moving to deny Beijing the Olympic Games or beefing up Taiwan's defenses as response to the standoff would only have further strained an already troubled relationship of profound geopolitical and economic importance to the U.S. The Bush administration hasn't yet formulated a comprehensive China policy, but the worst possible scenario would be to allow that policy to be determined by an unplanned encounter high over the South China Sea.

Despite the resolution of the standoff, the relationship remains tense. After all, the Hainan crisis was but a symptom of the rising tension over Taiwan. The U.S. spy plane, after all, had been monitoring a military buildup that is intended to intimidate Taiwan against pursuing independence, and also to persuade Washington to keep out of any future conflict over the island's status. The Bush administration has been weighing a request by Taiwan to buy sophisticated ship-mounted Aegis anti-missile systems in order to defend against the threat of medium-range missiles fired from the mainland, and Beijing has made stopping that sale a diplomatic priority. So the Taiwan tension remains even after the last yellow ribbons are taken down in the Northwest. But the Hainan standoff will have reminded both Beijing and Washington of the dangers that lurk in their relationship — and also of their potential to work together for their mutual benefit.