Beijing Talks Are Unlikely to Produce Agreement

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Close encounter: A Chinese fighter buzzes a U.S. spy plane Chinese and U.S. officials are to meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hainan standoff, with both sides under pressure to hang tough — and at the same time resolve some tricky questions. How has the Chinese media spun the Beijing meeting?

Matthew Forney: The focus of the Chinese media has been on the martyrdom of pilot Wang Wei. It's clear to me that both sides, having resolved the immediate problem of the U.S. crew held in China, are now taking a much more hard-line approach to satisfy domestic constituencies, and to protect their own space. China's version has been, I think, more ham-fisted, because it has greater control over its media. But there are similarities between the Chinese portrayals of the martyr Wang Wei and U.S. portrayals of its air crew, which is also presented as heroic.

The U.S. is going in demanding its plane back and saying it's going to read China the riot act about keeping a safe distance from U.S. planes when surveillance flights resume. China is saying before it hands back the plane, it wants the U.S. to undertake to end surveillance flights off the Chinese coast, and to pay compensation for the loss of Wang Wei and his aircraft. Something here has to give — what's it likely to be?

I don't see why either side would want an agreement out of this meeting, because their positions seem so intractable. Clearly they reached the agreement last week because both sides want to pound on the tables this week and show how tough they are. I think it's highly unlikely the Chinese would return the airplane before they could scrape every last bit of intelligence out of it. And I don't think the U.S. could make any promises on backing out of surveillance flights.

In the end, though, the question is not so much what this meeting means for Sino-U.S. relations, but what it may mean for Asia as a whole. There are many regional issues that require a great deal of Sino-U.S. cooperation — North Korea, for example. South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of rapprochement with North Korea requires the support of China, the U.S., Russia and Japan. If China and the U.S. look for ways to punish each other and they stop cooperating on North Korea, that could mean the failure of President Kim's policy. Taiwan is also a good example. If the U.S. changes its posture on defending Taiwan because of this incident, then it raises questions of whether Washington is acting on the basis of long-term planning or to satisfy short-term goals.

Because the stakes are so high, do you get the sense that there's been much diplomacy in the background? The negotiators in Beijing are handling some tough issues in which agreement may prove elusive, and presumably some measure of mutual reassurance is required at higher levels.

It's still too early to tell. This is the first major contact between the two sides since the aircraft incident. But President Bush is scheduled to visit China in October, and such visits are usually preceded by months of intensive meetings at lower levels to finesse agreements and documents for the leaders to sign. If those meetings don't take place, that would be an indication that the relationship is in more trouble than we thought. There are also commercial interests at stake: If China's state-owned companies stop awarding contracts to qualified U.S. firms, that would also indicate the relationship was in peril.

How did the Chinese respond to reports that the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk may be sent to the region?

The Chinese noticed that the U.S. was very careful about how it handled this crisis. Washington could have sent more of the Pacific Fleet toward the region. China also could have sent ships out to meet them, which apparently has not happened. The impression here may be that the U.S. has sent the Kitty Hawk on its course, but that it might change that course toward China if the results of the Beijing meeting are unsatisfactory to the U.S., and I'm sure China would consider that very provocative and unhelpful.

How would Chinese respond to the U.S. resuming surveillance flights later this week?

I think the Chinese would certainly consider it positive if those flights were conducted further away from the coast.