U.S.-China Standoff: The Final Scorecard

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Chinese president Jiang Zemin and United States president George Bush

George W. Bush: The big winner
Domestically and internationally, the new president has arrived as a statesman. Despite a day or two of uncertainty, his administration quickly got its ducks in a row, avoiding any signs of appeasement while at the same time doing everything necessary to prevent a potentially volatile standoff from escalating into a crisis. He muzzled the hawks, withdrew U.S. vessels from the area and calmed American emotions to give diplomacy its best chance. Whether he helped or not, Dad ought to be proud.

Secretary of State Colin Powell: Long-term winner
A sure hand on the tiller from the get-go, Powell choreographed a diplomatic solution in which the U.S. realized its objectives while conceding little of substance. He proved that determined diplomacy could work where tough talk and posturing was bound to fail, and that will cement his claims as the Great Helmsman of Bush administration foreign policy, which had recently been under fire from Washington's hawks.

Bush administration hawks: Taken out of the game
To their credit, those in the Bush administration who had taken the toughest anti-China stand stood back and let the doves handle this one. The outcome may be a victory for diplomacy and the dovish policy of engagement with the leadership in Beijing, but those of hawkish inclination will still cite the midair collision and Beijing's initial reactions as further evidence of what they believe is China's hostile intent toward the U.S.

The Pentagon: Good losers
A plane chock-full of top-of-the-line intelligence gear remains in Chinese hands, and 24 U.S. personnel spent 11 days as unwilling "guests" of Beijing after being bumped in international airspace by a Chinese fighter. The crew may have destroyed many of the plane's most vital secrets, but its loss (though it may yet come back in Ziploc bags) was still a setback, and the military had little option but to sit on its hands while the diplomats crafted a humble not-quite-apology when the Pentagon was more inclined to believe the Chinese ought to be apologizing.

Capitol Hill: Well-behaved hometown crowd
The standoff presented U.S. legislators with probably their toughest challenge — keeping quiet and letting the White House sort it out. And for the most part, they managed to remain calm and dignified despite 24-hour news television's hunger for threats and ultimatums. Lucky for everyone, though, that the issue was resolved before they returned from recess.

The Media: Winners (it's the ratings, stupid
A news saga always draws audiences, even when it refuses to behave like the sort of ultimatum-driven geopolitical showdown producers crave. Like the legislators, the media displayed uncharacteristic patience in refraining from second-guessing the White House when the chips were down.

President Jiang Zemin: Scorecard not yet in
Jiang will probably earn mixed reviews at home and abroad. From Washington's point of view, once the U.S. had gone as far as it could, the Chinese president moved decisively to resolve a situation that could have been catastrophic for both sides. But China's handling of the standoff also served as a reminder of the complexity of Beijing's power structure and the limits of Jiang's authority. At home, the government-controlled media are spinning the outcome as a victory for China, but it's not yet clear whether the military and other hard-liners in the corridors of power will accept that interpretation of events. In China's arcane domestic politics, the spin on Jiang's handling of the spy-plane incident may ultimately depend on short-term developments in more serious areas of U.S.-China conflict, such as over weapon sales to Taiwan.

Beijing's hard-liners: Mixed scorecard
On the one hand, the incident has been grist to their propaganda mill, which paints the U.S. as an innately hostile force looking to encircle and contain China. On the other, Washington's aversion to escalating the crisis, and its gestures of contrition, will be used to undermine hard-line arguments. As in the case of Jiang, how the hard-liners emerge from the standoff will be determined more by the near-term outcome of other conflicts, such as over Taiwan.

China's military: Losers, despite the spin
Although they have gotten to pore over the remains of a top-of-the-line U.S. intelligence-gathering platform, their domestic standing may have suffered: After all, they lost a frontline fighter and pilot in a tussle with an unarmed propeller plane, and then appeared to be taken by surprise when that propeller plane landed at one of their airbases. The U.S. statement accepted by the Chinese leadership concludes that the circumstances of the crash remain unclear, in contrast to the Chinese insistence that the U.S. plane rammed their fighter. And with their Pentagon counterparts, they're now obliged to figure out ways of preventing a recurrence while continuing to seek ways of obstructing the airborne intelligence-gathering operations that Washington will want to continue.

Taiwan: Win-win winners
It was Taiwan's interests that the U.S. spy plane was defending on the mission that led to the Hainan standoff, and tensions between Washington and Beijing inevitably play to Taipei's advantage. While the standoff won't necessarily increase the likelihood of Taiwan's being sold the weapons it desires, it's unlikely to have decreased that likelihood. The Bush administration won't use Taiwan arms sales to punish Beijing, but it may find it difficult to soften its position on the Aegis sale in the wake of the standoff. And on Capitol Hill, the price of rapprochement with Beijing is usually expanded support for Taiwan. Which is why for Taipei, the standoff was always a win-win proposition.