Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is not one to couch his words in subtleties. He is right on the money when he warns that the “Chinese are playing with real bullets here” as the standoff between Beijing and the United States continues over a detained American spy plane and crew.
The incident lacks any real credibility as a crisis, unless one or both sides allows it to get out of hand.
Granted, the Beijing leaders didn't like losing a plane and a pilot as the result of a collision with a U.S. surveillance craft. They don't in the least like the cues from Washington that the United States might send more sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan. These acts may look like bullying, from the Chinese viewpoint.
Still, China is not really threatened by U.S. military power. It sells far more billions of dollars in goods to this country than it buys, an important factor in boosting its national economy. China wants to be admitted to the World Trade Organization, and it is lobbying for the summer Olympic Games in 2008. It risks all of these by overplaying its hand on the basis of one U.S. plane sitting on the island of Hainan and 24 Americans it holds hostage.
To his credit, President Bush has shown restraint while exhibiting appropriate toughness in attempting to resolve the impasse. China has painted itself into a corner by donning the mantle of victim and demanding nothing less than an apology from the U.S. However, nothing in the facts of the case suggests an apology is warranted.
The U.S. says the collision was a regrettable accident but correctly points out that the surveillance plane was in international airspace when it was pursued too closely by the Chinese jet.
Any deteriorating of relations between China and the United States could open up a whole can of worms for not only the two countries involved but also close U.S. allies in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea. Possibly, the Chinese government is testing the mettle of a new American president.
The Bush administration should continue to be conciliatory up to a point - and firm beyond it. In quiet diplomatic conversations, the Chinese must be told that the respect they crave is a two-way street and that if they humiliate Americans or mistreat the hostages, they will pay a price in the long term.
In one respect, China does hold a trump card. It is for that country to decide what sort of relationship it wants to have with the United States. Washington will not pursue any foreign policy objectives the two countries might have in common until the crew and the plane are released. Meanwhile, China is squandering whatever reserves of good will exist in this country toward the Beijing regime.