'Resumed Spy Flights Are Part of Improvised China Policy'

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AP

Here's looking at you: A poster in Shanghai depicts Presidents Bush and Jiang

TIME.com: A day after the U.S. resumes surveillance flights off the Chinese coast, Beijing says the EP-3 stranded at Hainan won't be able to fly out. Is this a case of "Now that your spy planes are flying again, you're going to get this one back in Ziploc bags?"

Jay Branegan: It was very important for the U.S. to resume the surveillance flights, to reassert the principle that they had the right to make these flights in international airspace. That's even more important than getting the plane back under humiliating circumstances. And there would be no advantage to waiting for the plane to be returned before resuming the flights, since that would give the Chinese an incentive to keep the plane. The principle that the plane should be returned is self-evident; the principle that the U.S. has the right to fly surveillance missions in international airspace needed to be reestablished. By going ahead, the U.S. uncoupled the two issues.

So it's a return to business as usual. But what impact has the spy plane standoff had on the broader U.S.-China relationship?

The broader relationship right now remains one of tension, unease, wariness and mutual distrust. It has clearly entered a very cool period. It was striking last week that China was barely mentioned in President Bush’s speech on missile defense, while the Russians were made out to be almost a partner in the initiative. Now the administration is sending one of its most senior defense officials to Russia to discuss the proposals — it's even sending the State Department's Number Two, Richard Armitage, to India for discussions over missile defense — but a far lower-ranking career diplomat is being sent to Beijing to relay Washington’s thinking on the issue. So there’s basically a big freeze-out of China right now.

The spy plane incident has, in effect, forced the Bush administration into a more confrontational stand against China much sooner than they would have liked. I don't think this is how they wanted to start their relationship with China, even if they had ultimately planned to take a tougher line. It’s been widely noted that they don't have a lot of China hands at the top of the foreign policy apparatus, and that allowed the security types and those more suspicious of Beijing to get the upper hand at a time when the administration had not yet formulated its China policy. Again, it might be that the Bush administration would have wanted to take a tougher line with China on a number of issues, but the Hainan standoff set them off on the wrong foot, because they've been forced to improvise a China policy.

In Beijing, the fallout from the standoff is likely to force the more reformist element of China's leadership to march in lockstep with the conservatives, forcing them to default to more suspicious and hostile positions towards the West. Is this a concern of the Bush administration?

It should be a concern, but it's not clear to what extent the issue has been thought through by the Bush administration. In style at least, the administration tends towards a certain unilateralism, partly by design, partly by personality. President Jiang Zemin is in power in no small part because he is perceived as a guy who could get along with the U.S. And there’s some cause for concern about the state of the relationship as China's leadership succession struggle looms, because a poor relationship means Jiang and his people are discredited in the leadership struggle.

In the short term, the reformists and those pursuing globalization in China are on the defensive, and we're undercutting them every week. We should not overstate our ability to influence events in China, but to the degree we're able to influence the political play there, we're not doing that to our advantage.