'Beijing Stalemate Was Expected'

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China's leaders are playing to an angry domestic constituency

TIME.com: The Beijing talks ended only with an agreement to keep on talking. Is this a setback?

Jaime Florcruz:Not really, it was predictable. It was not realistic to expect the two sides to sort things out on the first or second round of talks. There's still a lot of posturing going on. It's always tough to negotiate with the Chinese, and even more so when a lot of face is at stake.

The U.S. also took a tough position, threatening to call off the talks if China refused to discuss returning the plane. That's also typical of negotiations with China, even business negotiations — playing the dash-to-the-airport ruse. Sometimes they literally sign agreements at the airport. There's a lot of political brinkmanship and grandstanding here, most of it meant for domestic consumption. The plane has become a symbol for both sides to assert national dignity.

The real challenge will be to get China to discuss the issues separately: the return of the plane, the question of whether surveillance flights resume, and the protocols that both sides would observe around such flights. Right now the Chinese can't discuss "rules of the road" for both sides in relation to surveillance flights, because that would mean accepting the premise that the U.S. has the right to continue those. It's very tricky; they have to get the Chinese military to go along with whatever agreements they make on returning the plane and resuming flights. The Chinese are unlikely to budge on their demand for an end to surveillance flights, at least not initially. Eventually, they may even be able to reach some understandings on that issue — once both sides accept 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.

So the talks ended now because with the two sides sticking to mutually exclusive positions, there was nothing more to say?

Yes, these meetings were really just an opportunity for each side to elaborate on its positions. The first session or two was always going to be about posturing. At least each side has a better idea of the other's concerns.

Will the outcome of the Beijing meeting have any effect on the overall climate of U.S.-China relations?

Bad vibes feed bad vibes, and the atmospherics right now are very negative. But as the issue migrates off the front pages, it becomes easier for the diplomats of each country to negotiate issues in a less emotion-driven way than when they're communicating through the media.

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.