China is playing the United States for a fool because it can. By now it knows Washington wants - at all costs - to avoid a tussle with the world's most populous country, a nation that dumps more cheap imports on America's shores than anyone else and is a looming military threat. So Beijing toys with U.S. administrations to see how far it can push the outside of the envelope before it provokes anything more than Washington finger-wagging.
So far the Bush administration, like its predecessor, has been the perfect and predictable foil. When China dangled a downed Navy spy plane and crew as hostage to its take-it-or-leave-it conditions, President Bush talked tough, but back-door diplomatic channels to Beijing whispered, “Read between the lines and please accept our most sincere regrets for the truly unfortunate consequences of our questionable behavior.”
Washington told the world it was water under the bridge when China finally freed the detained American servicemen and women and, later, when it allowed their dismantled plane to be transported back home. Incredibly, Bush officials are actually considering paying some of the $1 million Beijing had the audacity to request to cover the expenses it incurred while holding the U.S. plane.
For a time, there was also tough talk on Taiwan by the President, but his words and intentions were quickly softened lest Beijing take serious offense.
And even as China was cracking down Tienanmen-style on followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and arresting Chinese-American scholars on apparently trumped up spying charges, the Bush administration refused to oppose Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics.
It still wouldn't budge when some of its staunchest supporters in the House tried to garner support for legislation urging the International Olympics Committee not to award the games to the Chinese. China now has seven years to figure out how to overcome its image as a thug on the world stage - that's not nearly enough time.
After China magnanimously released two U.S.-based scholars convicted of espionage to smoothe the way for a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and with an eye on the President's visit in October, Washington declared all was dandy with American-Sino relations.
“I think the relationship is on the upswing,” proclaimed Secretary Powell, “now that these irritations are behind us, and I know they are anxious to move forward.”
Is America to believe that China's disregard for its own citizens, its haste to trump up spy charges against foreigners it doesn't like, its assault on an American plane that could have killed the crew but for the skill of the U.S. pilot, are all just “irritations”?
Turning a blind eye toward China's history of human abuses and diplomatic affronts to the United States to preserve the promise of lucrative trade opportunities is a mistake. Allowing a muscle-flexing Beijing to continue pushing so close to the edge of international tolerance is plain dangerous.
Pretending that it is business as usual with China is wishful thinking on the part of the Bush administration and the pro-China contingency in the corporate community. Sooner, not later, the United States had better play a more exacting match with Beijing to regain the upper hand, or Beijing will continue to play us for fearful fools.
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