Over the weekend, a collision occurred between a US Navy intelligence plane, the EP-3 and a Chinese fighter jet, the F-8. The accident has led to an escalation of diplomatic tension – but does it mark the beginning of a more serious confrontation between China and US? The signs do not look good.
To be fair, the sort of aerial cat & mouse games that led to the accident is not unique; the US regularly sends intelligence gathering aerial missions over many of the world’s hotspots. Understandably, most countries don’t like to be spied upon and will almost certainly send up aerial interceptors to deter the spies or at least throw them off course. The Iraqis do it, the Yugoslavs do it, the Russians (still) do it – it is no surprise the Chinese reacted the same way.
This time the game ended with an aerial accident where the Chinese F-8 was forced to crash into the sea and the US EP-3 made an emergency landing in Chinese territory. More significantly, it may have sparked off a much more dangerous political game between two of the world’s most powerful nations.
The current diplomatic spat is the latest between the two nations: Tiananmen Square was a bad time for diplomatic relations between the two countries, to say the least. In 1993, the Chinese blamed the US for poisoning the international community against its hosting of the 2000 Olympics. In 1996, China lobbed missiles at Taiwan – the US respondent with two carrier battle groups. In 1999, NATO aircraft accidentally blasted the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. And now, this. Do we have reason to believe that this time the fallout will be worse?
In the past, we had good ol’ Bill
Together with the impending decision as to whether the US will sell the Aegis advanced radar system to Taiwan, how President Bush will handle this current crisis will probably set the tone for how the US will deal with China in the foreseeable future. Already, his tone in recent press statements has been very strong, bordering on the un-diplomatic. Bush has asked for "immediate access" to the 24 downed US personnel. He is "troubled by the lack of a timely response" from the Chinese whose actions are, he says, "inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice". With such strong words, it is hardly surprising that the US has ordered three destroyers that were in the area during the time of the accident to remain "on station" and "on alert". Presumably, these warships will assist in the recovery of the Chinese F-8 that went down after the collision but for the Chinese who consider the whole South China Sea as their territorial right, the prolonged presence of these ships will certainly offend them.
The US reaction is not unwarranted; after all, the Chinese are being difficult. Denying diplomats access to US citizens for more than 48 hours certainly seems to breach established international protocol. But it could all be just as test to see how the new US president reacts under such circumstances. In the past, with President Bill Clinton, the tone of the US has always been conciliatory towards the Chinese; he once referred to them as "strategic partners". President Bush refers to them as "strategic competitors" – a marked shift in official policy may follow such re-categorization. It is entirely possible that the Chinese want to see the direction of this shift, and this accident gives them an obvious opportunity.
You said, I said, I said, you said
The problem with game of punch-counter punch that both sides are currently playing is that it can easily spiral out of control. Both countries are currently in particularly fragile states. The Chinese government has to deal with a wave of nationalism that seems to have replaced socialism and communism as the ideology of choice – the mass demonstrations in Beijing on Sunday are clear indications that the Chinese people don’t trust the US. The US is undergoing a period of economic fragility. During times like this, blame-shifting is common and it is not difficult to imagine millions of Americans looking towards China as their economic bogeyman. Such socio-political conditions did not exist at such a prominent scale in past Sino-US confrontations, and they could very well be the deciding factor on whether or not this latest flare up ends amicably. Everyone should be very careful – the last thing we need is a cold war between the eagle and dragon.
Appearing on www.renungan.com 3 April 2001