Five Lessons from a Diplomatic Test


Apr 15, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on April 15, 2001.

After 11 days of tense maneuvering and negotiations, Beijing and Washington finally reached an agreement that allowed for the release of the American air crew. Considerable patience and diplomatic skill were required to attain this outcome, and the Bush administration should be commended for its achievement. It ultimately conceded very little to obtain the crew's release, whereas the Chinese obtained few, if any, of their demands.

However, the incident could still severely damage Sino-American relations. In retrospect, it underscores the importance of five key principles that should be observed in any future altercation.

First, recognize that the relationship with China cannot be treated as a second order policy issue. Some Bush administration officials have suggested that the United States should pay less attention to Beijing and more attention to improving ties with our close friends and allies in Asia. But tense military and diplomatic relationships with China can easily create situations that threaten regional stability. Understanding and dealing with China demands at least equal time and energy. For their part, the Chinese should recognize that, despite their domestic political need to show toughness toward the United States, they risk even greater damage to their core interests of internal stability and authority by unnecessarily provoking Washington.

Second, avoid striking public postures that apportion blame or innocence or suggest what the Chinese need to do to resolve a dispute, especially when the facts are in doubt or incomplete. China's uncompromising stance toward the air collision was virtually guaranteed when U.S. officials declared, soon after the accident, that the surveillance aircraft had done nothing wrong, blamed the Chinese for the collision, and demanded the prompt return of the crew. Even if justified, public delivery of these claims was taken as a direct challenge to Chinese dignity and sovereignty. In response, Beijing was forced to take a tough public line to show that it would not be intimidated by the "hegemonistic" Americans.

At the same time, the Chinese painted themselves into a corner by sticking to the ridiculous public position that the United States had clearly caused the accident and must issue a formal apology. Given the predictable rejection of this claim by the American public, China's only hope was that the ultimate language provided by Washington could be spun to appear as an apology. The Chinese media has attempted to do this, but few Chinese citizens will miss the point that their government lost on this central issue. If the Chinese had simply rejected the initial American statement while calling for an investigation, they could have avoided a loss of face.

Third, do not persist in trading public statements and do not engage the president directly in an effort to pressure the Chinese. The administration followed its initial blame game by using the president to publicly convey messages of growing firmness and impatience. These almost surely reinforced Beijing's view that the United States was not interested in their complaints and was attempting to publicly pressure China into releasing the crew. Involving the president also raised the overall stakes. Interactions between Beijing and Washington should have been conducted almost exclusively through diplomatic channels from the beginning.

For their part, the Chinese committed their greatest error by giving the impression that they would only release the crew in return for a formal U.S. apology, thus making them de facto hostages. If, instead, they had stressed their claim that the crew was being detained solely as subjects in the investigation of the incident, they could have diminished American anger.

Fourth, the American public should understand that China's tough public rhetoric is intended as much for domestic consumption as it is to send a clear message of resolve to Washington. Public posturing is not to be dismissed as pure theater; it often expresses strongly held views. However, it should not be taken to be China's bottom line regarding any possible resolution. Privately, the Chinese eventually indicate willingness to negotiate a deal that falls short of their public posture. Fortunately, the administration understood this essential distinction and was able to focus on the negotiations rather than the bombast.

Fifth, realize that incidents such as this could become more common as China's capabilities increase, its fears regarding U.S. intentions grow, and tensions over Taiwan intensify.

Troubling as this prospect is, our first response should not be punitive actions that could damage U.S. interests and increase the chances of more serious conflict down the road. Preferably, our priority should be an all-out effort to develop more effective military-diplomatic communications with this, the largest and fastest-growing nation on the planet. Given U.S. power and its own self-interests, China's priority should be the same.

Swaine is a senior policy analyst at RAND specializing in Chinese military and foreign policy and the co-author of Interpreting China's Grand Strategy, published last year.

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