Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2001

The Bush administration decided early last week not to confront China over its delay in releasing twenty-four U.S. Navy personnel it had detained when their damaged spy plane was forced to land on Hainan Island. After a few days of diplomatic exchanges, the Americans were released unharmed.

In this case, patience by the president and skillful diplomacy by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and our ambassador in Beijing, Admiral Joseph Prueher, persuaded Beijing's leaders that they had more to lose than gain by continuing to hold the crew.

The White House was not certain just what China's real intentions were. Was there a power struggle going on among Chinese leaders that precluded an early release of the American crew? Was Beijing calculating that it could trade these U.S. personnel for concessions on issues of high priority to Bejing? Perhaps the answer to both questions was "yes."

Until the Chinese objectives were clearer, President Bush decided not to engage in economic retaliation or provocative military moves. Instead he used subtle ways to let Beijing know the potential price it would pay if it stalled on releasing the crew..

China's demand for a formal apology was never the real issue, and the president correctly said that until the crew was released we had only the Chinese version of what happened on April 1. It now appears that the accident resulted from the dangerous actions of a Chinese fighter pilot.

It seemed from the beginning that Beijing wanted three concessions from the Bush administration:

* A pledge that American surveillance planes will not fly near China's coastline, in effect, that we stop or greatly reduce these reconnaissance flights near China's coast.

* An understanding that Bush will not sell sophisticated weapons to Taiwan for its defense, specifically four destroyers equipped with the latest Aegis battle control system.

* A promise that Washington will not block China's bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

The second and third demands are probably negotiable, now that the Navy personnel have been released and that a joint commission will meet this week to determine what caused the April 1 incident and how future ones can be avoided.

Regarding arms for Taiwan, there are good political reasons why the United States should not sell it our most sophisticated destroyers, but should provide other defense equipment to enhance Taiwan's ability to resist China's intimidation over unification with the mainland. Also, there is no good reason why Washington or other democratic countries should reject China's desire to host the 2008 Olympic Games, provided its human rights record shows improvement. Unfortunately., Beijing's recent actions against political dissidents make this issue more difficult to negotiate.

But on China's first and most important objective--forcing the United States to curtail surveillance flights off its coasts, it is totally unacceptable to Washington. This issue will continue to spur tensions because compliance would impair the U.S. ability to monitor China's military moves that affect the security of its neighbors, primarily Taiwan.

Americans should be fully realistic about Beijing's long-term objective: it is to replace the United States as the major power broker in East Asia, including in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Reuniting Taiwan with China, following a century of Japanese occupation and (after 1945) American influence, is the first step in Beijing's design to restore China's leading role in Asia.

The second step is the extension of China's influence over the vast area of the South China Sea, which is legally international waters and air space. By establishing a Chinese presence on disputed islands, for example the Spratly Islands in the center of that sea, Beijing would claim an expanded territorial zone giving it the legal authority to control of the sea lanes between the Philippines and Vietnam.

Japan's oil lifeline from the Persian Gulf runs through the South China Sea and threats to commercial traffic there would be viewed as a survival economic interest for Tokyo and would trigger a U.S. response.

In dealing with China's government last week, President Bush had only two choices: play it cool, or get tough. He wisely decided to pursue the diplomatic route recommended by the State Department, which meant waiting for the economic and political realities persuade Beijing to release the Americans.

However, both the Chinese and U.S. leaders had a problem with their own public. The Chinese masses are still angry over the U.S. bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade and view the recent plane incident as another affront to China's national honor. Some radicals speak of teaching the American "hegemon" a lesson by holding on to its plane and crew.

President Bush has a problem coping with hard-line critics in the Republican Party who think he was "soft." He also faces the Democrats who expected to thwart his domestic agenda while he was preoccupied with foreign policy. Had the Hainan detention continued for many weeks, powerful members of Congress in both parties would have demanded that the president increase the defense budget in order to meet a serious Chinese threat in Asia.

Regardless of how the Bush administration decides the question of arms sales to Taiwan later this month, China will protest. In its view, Taiwan should be negotiating with Beijing on how to integrate itself into Greater China instead of talking about independence. Bush's National Security Council needs to decide soon just how far the United States plans to go in encouraging negotiations between Beijing and Taipei. The alternative is likely to be tacit support for those nationalist groups in Taiwan and Washington who think Taiwan has a right to be independent.

In other parts of the world, Bush and Powell watch more violence erupt between Israelis and Palestinians in the Near East, and new ethnic clashes in Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Macedonia Leaders in all these areas think the United States to display "leadership," a code word for pressuring the other side to make concessions and, implicitly, for giving more U.S. economic aid.

Bush so far has resisted these pressures, although Secretary Powell visited Macedonia and Bosnia last week to urge restraint on all sides. Regarding the continued Israeli-Palestinian violence and assassinations, Bush and Powell say the United States will not be the broker in this conflict, as Bill Clinton was last year.

Their hands-off policy has risks, because a popular revolt in a major Arab country, Jordan for example, that resulted from public outrage against Israel's brutal suppression of Palestinians, could trigger a wider conflict and force the United States to intervene. Hopefully, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will begin serious negotiations on what can be salvaged from the nearly-consummated peace accord that was negotiated last fall while Ehud Barak was Israel's prime minister. In the meantime, George Bush is wise to stand aloof, while being vigilant, until Israelis and Palestinians decide that talking is better than killing each other.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST

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