Why Beijing Talks Had a Bumpy Start

  • Share
  • Read Later

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Peter F. Verga walks in to the U.S. Embassy

TIME.com: Reports from Beijing say the talks between U.S. and Chinese representatives over the spy-plane incident are going very badly. But given the positions both sides had announced before the talks, would it be correct to say they were bound to fail?

Jaime Florcruz:That's exactly where the challenge is — to avoid setting unrealistic expectations on both sides. It's dangerous to make people think that the first few rounds of talks on this subject could produce agreements or breakthroughs. That's unrealistic. The talks probably began with a lot of finger-pointing and posturing, and lectures from the Chinese side on who is to blame. It was to be expected that the meetings would start out as an ugly gripe session. This was not simply diplomats talking, it was the military establishment on each side having to confront difficult issues, both of principle and of a technical nature.

The most optimistic scenario I can think of is that after all the posturing is over — and it's hard to say when that will be — the two sides could at least focus on finding some technical agreements. They won't be able to agree on the issue of sovereignty, and defining where Chinese airspace begins and ends. That will be a very contentious issue, which I don't see being resolved in the near future. Instead of focusing on that, the two sides will be better off focusing on the fact that the U.S. will resume surveillance close to Chinese airspace, and that the Chinese will challenge those flights. Given those assumptions, the two sides may be able find agreement on some rules of engagement among pilots that could create a solid basis for avoiding future accidents.

The military on both sides is facing a difficult period over how to manage their relations, and both sides will ultimately be better served if they keep their emotions down.

It has been reported that President Bush's security aides are advising him to hold off on the sale of Aegis anti-missile destroyers to Taiwan — a hot-button issue for Beijing. That's a strong signal that Washington wants to prevent the fallout from the Hainan incident from determining the course of U.S. Chinese relations.

Yes, the Taiwanese have recently been quoted as saying they don't really need the Aegis right now, and that is making it easier for Bush to hold off on the sale. The administration can tell the Republican right wing that it's not denying Taiwan, but rather making a decision on the basis of the island's immediate defense needs. If it had gone through, Beijing would have seen the sale as a provocation.

Washington has done the right thing by separating the Aegis decision from the spy-plane issue. To link them would be to allow an accidental collision to determine the course of U.S.-China relations. By separating the issues and deciding each one on its own merits, they would have more leeway to avoid worsening relations with Beijing.

It also presumably allows the relationship to continue at other levels even if the military-to-military issues around the spy plane and the future of surveillance flights aren't immediately resolved.

If Washington holds off on Aegis, it would assure Beijing that the administration is serious about maintaining a stable and steady relationship with China. It will be taken as a confidence-building gesture, and create time and space for the conflict over the spy plane to simmer down. And, of course, also to allow the Bush administration to establish just what its China policy is going to be. At least with the U.S. crew home and the Chinese having called off the search for Wang Wei, we have closure on the most emotional aspects of the spy-plane issue. But for the negotiators, the hard part is still to come.