New Perils Lurk in U.S.-China Relations

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Kindergartners from Andersen Elementary School in Guam welcome the U.S. crew The Hainan standoff occurred before the Bush administration had developed a comprehensive China policy, or put in place the people to manage that policy. How will the incident shape the making of Bush administration China policy?

Jay Branegan: The experience is certainly going to strengthen the hard-liners in Congress and the administration who would like to view China as an emerging threat. Still, it's not clear that they would be dominant or win the debate over policy, because there's also a pretty clear consensus that hard-headed engagement with China is in the best interest of the U.S., and the best way to ensure that China doesn't become a threat.

The way the standoff was resolved may have taught the administration that bellicose talk can be counterproductive. It may also force the administration to rethink the idea of deemphasizing China and putting more emphasis on relations with Japan and South Korea. Most of the administration's Asia experts right now are Japan specialists. But deemphasizing China carries the risk of neglecting a very important part of the strategic equation in Asia.

Given that the administration has yet to appoint its team to manage long-term relations with China, will there be competition between China hawks and China doves to fill those places?

Clearly the competition for the China-sensitive posts in the White House, State Department, National Security Council and Defense Department will intensify. But just as the Hainan incident will inspire GOP hard-liners to take a tougher stand, it will also inspire the pro-engagement moderates to work harder in making their case. The standoff was difficult for them — China was behaving badly and very difficult to defend, and that cowed many engagement advocates into silence. The moderates are determined to avoid such blowups in the future, and ensure that if they do occur the damaged is minimized. To do that, they are going to have to strengthen their voices.

Could the possibility of a backlash on Capitol Hill further undo the relationship?

In the end, it'll probably be marginal. Those who always thought China was an emerging enemy will believe their suspicions are confirmed. But for some other people, the most important fact in the way the situation played out was that the pro-Western forces in China actually won, and that's good news. By climbing down and backing off even after an unseemly amount of time, China cast its lot in with globalization, and its continued opening to the West.

Still, there must be no doubt that the desire to retaliate is strong and broad. However, the problem is that most of the policy areas that people talk about as areas where they could retaliate, such as trade relations, are things that we do for our own benefit. The U.S. doesn't push for China's entry into the World Trade Organization, for example, or to have permanent normal trade relations with Beijing, simply to benefit the Chinese; we do it because it's in our own economic interests. It's hard to find forms of retaliation that don't carry collateral damage for the U.S.

One obvious area that those bent on retaliating may consider is the Taiwan arms sale. Speculation had been that Washington would stop short of giving Taiwan the Aegis at this stage. But there's now speculation that there will be a stronger push to approve that sale immediately, as a way to punish China. That, however, would probably undercut the very pro-Western forces we want to support in China. Canceling President Bush's planned state visit to Beijing in the fall? Well, the reason he scheduled that visit was presumably because he judged it in the best interests of the U.S. to have a personal relationship with the Chinese leaders. Cutting back the number of student visas we issue to China? Presumably those visas have been issued in the first place because we think it's important to expose Chinese students to the West. Cutting back on military-to-military ties? Expanding communication between their military and our military remains the best way to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations. Talk about retaliation is easy until it comes down to specifics.

Is there a danger that while the U.S. leadership will be judged on the fact that it brought home its personnel with minimal cost to America, the Chinese leadership is going to be judged at home on what comes next? After all, there are a number of difficult issues coming up, ranging from the April 18 meeting on the future of the plane and surveillance flights, to the vexed question of the Taiwan weapons sale.

That danger exists. But the reality is that often in these cases, the trauma of the event scares both sides, and neither wants a recurrence. Historically, such incidents have the perverse impact of prompting an intensification of dialogue to avoid repetition. In the end, they tend to bring both sides closer together. The meetings that begin on April 18 may see some yelling and screaming, but in the end they could actually result in an agreement over some rules of engagement for these surveillance flights that could build confidence and lessen tensions.