Post-Hainan, Bush China Policy Doesn't Get Any Easier

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Bush welcomes home the crew of the U.S. surveillance plane

As if mastering the strategic realpolitik of managing relations with Beijing weren't hard enough, President Bush now faces the additional discomfort of having China policy emerge as a domestic political issue. Even as the President comes out swinging now that the 24 U.S. personnel are safe, his handling of his first international crisis is taking a hammering on the right, where commentators are lining up to bash it as dangerous appeasement. And it has to sting a little when a president seeking to model himself on Ronald Reagan is accused by true-blue conservatives of having handled the matter as Bill Clinton would have.

President Bush is plainly angry at having been forced to say the words "very sorry" in connection with an incident he believes really resulted from China's illegitimate molesting of a U.S. plane in international airspace, and he wants to sound a warning to the Chinese that their conduct was unacceptable to Washington. And that message also helps him manage any domestic political ferment over China on his right flank. But finding his balance on China policy would be a lot easier, of course, if he didn't face some tough calls of potentially epic consequences in the next two weeks.

The two countries have a meeting scheduled for April 18 that looks likely to be anything but friendly. China has announced its delegation plans to demand that the U.S. accept full responsibility for the plane crash and cease further surveillance flights in international airspace off the Chinese coast. Fat chance. The U.S. plans not only to resume the flights, but to challenge the Chinese conduct in response to such flights. Don't be surprised if it's some time before the Chinese hand back the U.S. plane that remains at Hainan. Still, both sides will be eager to avoid a recurrence, and after some initial clearing of the air, may move toward developing a series of protocols governing such midair encounters.

But a week after the April 18 meeting, President Bush is due to announce a decision on whether to go ahead with the sale of the advanced Aegis anti-missile system to Taiwan. Even before the Hainan standoff, stopping the Aegis sale had dominated Beijing's agenda, and it had been widely speculated in Washington that the administration would defer the Aegis question and instead supply Kidd-class destroyers, which are immediately available. That would also allow Washington to maintain the leverage of the Aegis decision, and in any case, the construction of the Arleigh-Burke-class destroyers that carry the system would take another eight years. But with a strong domestic political inclination to punish Beijing for the Hainan standoff, there's obviously a temptation to immediately authorize the Aegis sale.

Authorizing the Aegis sale right now, though, carries great danger. Not only does it challenge Beijing to come up with a strong response, but more important, could severely weaken the hand of the moderates in Beijing who seek a good relationship with the West. President Jiang and his moderate allies eventually prevailed over their hard-line critics in the Hainan standoff, but their weakness was revealed along the way. And if the U.S. goes ahead with the Aegis sale, that will be taken in Beijing as proof of the failure of President Jiang's line, which could tilt the delicate balance in favor of the hard-liners and ultimately leave U.S.-China relations even more confrontation-prone. But appearing to back away from the sale opens President Bush up to attack from critics on the right that he's appeasing Beijing. Then again, allowing relations with China to deteriorate won't be acceptable to the more business-oriented wing of the Repubican party.

So domestic politics may play a decisive role in the Bush administation's China decisions in the coming weeks. But not only Washington's domestic politics; Beijing's too.