A well known Chinese saying goes something like this: "The strong are those with the thickest skins". Referring to a leader’s ability to swallow his pride for the greater good, it is certainly a lesson that both sides of the Pacific will do well to learn if they are to avoid turning the recent mid-air collision between a US EP-3 and a Chinese F-8 into an "international incident".
To tell the truth, the general public may never know what really happened 80 miles off the Chinese coast. Who rammed who, who swerved into who, whose fault it is – we can never be certain. All we can be sure of is that the accident occurred, the Chinese pilot is presumably lost and 24 US citizens and a sophisticated piece of American surveillance equipment is sitting in Chinese territory. The question before everyone now shouldn’t be who to blame, but what can be done to resolve the situation peacefully.
Words from both sides have been getting very tough recently – President Jiang Zemin has personally stepped in, demanding an official apology from the US government over the incident and the subsequent loss of the Chinese pilot. The Chinese Foreign Minister, usually much more reserved, has called the US arrogant and "wrong-headed". US Secretary of State, Colin Powell is blasting back saying that the "detainment" of the 24 crew members of the EP-3 is illegal and against international law. President Bush has repeated statements of "concern", strongly demanding the immediate return of the crew members and the high-tech plane. The language is getting stronger, the tone is getting harder, and the risk involved is more dangerous than ever before. Surely, something must give.
The problem is…
…neither side wants to seem weak in the eyes of their people. The Chinese populace branded their leadership as weak and cowardly over the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. During that incident, the Chinese government did not take a hard-line position against the US. They certainly can’t be seen to lose face again. President Bush and Co., after criticizing the previous president for being too chummy with the Chinese, certainly can’t be seen to bow to Chinese demands; the American press would have a field day. The end result is a losing game where both losers cannot admit defeat.
Wars have been started for much less than this.
There are visible escape routes for both; routes that require some "thick skin" but would maintain the honor of everyone involved. For the Chinese, they could continue the grandstanding for another few days, then pass over the crew members for "compassionate reasons" – safe with the knowledge that by doing so, they will be hailed as honorable for ending the escalation of tensions. They would certainly gain much political capital with countries in the region who have been on edge since it all began, most notably Japan. To save face with their people, they can claim victory by keeping the plane as a captured "imperialist" prize. Undoubtedly, the US will huff and puff over this for a while, but ultimately they should give in because, firstly, if they continued to make noise about the plane after getting the crew back, they will be seen as valuing the plane more than the people. And secondly, is it likely the crew has already destroyed the most advanced technology on the plane, thus making the loss a very minor one.
The Great Escape
For the Americans, to end it quick, they could just apologize or at least acknowledge that part of the blame for the accident lies with them. Use a conciliatory tone, offer to compensate the family of the dead Chinese pilot (as compared to compensating the Chinese government) and then, politely ask for the plane and it’s crew to be returned. No matter how difficult this might seem because of domestic pressures, it would certainly be the best move to expedite the safe return of the plane’s crew and the plane itself. If the Bush administration is afraid of looking weak, it will always have opportunities in the future to prove their "steely resolve" – for instance, they can approve the sale of the Aegis to Taiwan later this month. The political fallout for that action at both an international and national level would be considerably less than the heat the administration will feel if this current row gets out of hand.
Apparing in www.renungan.com 5 April 2001