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Sino-American Conflict Just Beginning

by Jim Lobe

Arms sale to Taiwan would further set back Sino-U.S. ties
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The agreement between the United States and China on terms for releasing a U.S. spy plane's 24-member crew marks a major victory for forces within both countries which favor continued close engagement.

But while Washington and Beijing have successfully defused a major threat to bilateral ties, there is clearly no lack of differences which could precipitate new crises in the future, beginning later this month when President George W. Bush must decide on what arms systems to sell to Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province.

Beijing warned even before the spy plane incident Sino-U.S. ties would face "serious dangers" if Bush grants Taiwan's request to buy four destroyers equipped with top-of-the-line Aegis radar systems to deter China from attempting to achieve re-unification with the island by military means.

Knowledgeable sources close to the administration told IPS that, despite the return of the crew, the pressure on Bush to approve the Aegis sale had become irresistible.

"There are many more potholes on the road," according to John Ford, an analyst at the U.S.-China Business Council, a major lobby group which favors economic engagement with Beijing. But Ford called today's accord a "very positive development (that) will arrest the downward slide that we were all worried could begin to significantly damage other parts of the bilateral relationship, particularly economic and trade ties." Two-way trade last year exceeded $110 billion.

Indeed, the announcement that the crew, which has been detained at a military base on Hainan Island where it made an emergency landing after colliding with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet over international waters April 1, will return to U.S. hands within 24 hours is seen as cause for great relief by officials here who were under growing pressure from anti-China hawks, concentrated in Republican ranks in Congress, to take a harder line.

The breakthrough came when Beijing accepted a letter from Amb. Joseph Prueher in which the United States said it was "very sorry" for the apparent death in the incident of the Chinese pilot and the U.S. plane's entering Chinese airspace in order to make the emergency landing without "verbal clearance."

The letter, the focus of painstaking negotiation over the week, also said that both sides agreed to meet, beginning April 18, to discuss the incident, how such collisions could be avoided in the future, and the return of Washington's EP-3 plane, which was crammed with hi-tech intelligence gear, most of which the Pentagon hopes was destroyed by the crew before the crippled plan touched down on Hainan Island.

It added that Washington "acknowledge(s)" Beijing intent to raise the issue of U.S. reconnaissance missions -- a bow to Beijing's demands, raised periodically during the stand-off, that Washington end its spy-plane flights near China as part of the price for returning the crew.

In a brief, carefully worded statement announcing the accord, Bush himself expressed "sorrow" for the Chinese pilot's loss of life, adding, "Our prayers are with his wife and his child."

"[Powell] was clearly going to be hung out to dry if things didn't go well"
Beijing had insisted throughout the past 10 days that Washington apologize for the incident, a demand rejected from the outset by the administration which claimed that there was no evidence that the U.S. plane, a lumbering, propeller-driven craft, had caused the collision.

The much faster and more agile Chinese F-8s had become so aggressive in shadowing the "routine" EP-3 flights in recent months that U.S. officials had formally protested their behavior, according to the Pentagon, who said the Chinese pilot who perished in the incident was well known to U.S. crews for risky maneuvers.

The Pentagon also acknowledged, that it had stepped up spy flights along the southern Chinese coast over the past six months, which, according to some analysts, may have provoked the more aggressive Chinese tactics.

That dynamic -- the increase in U.S. spy flights and the more aggressive Chinese shadowing tactics -- reflected growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, particularly in the aftermath of Bush's election.

Despite his father's amicable ties with Chinese leaders dating back to the 1970s, Bush criticized President Bill Clinton's depiction of China as a "strategic partner" as naive, insisting that China must be considered a "strategic competitor."

His administration's determination to deploy a national missile defense (NMD) system, as well as the strong support Taiwan enjoys in the Republican leadership in Congress and especially among senior aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, have also deepened concerns in China about U.S. intentions and bolstered the position of hawks, centered in the military, who have long expressed reservations about close ties with Washington.

More recent events -- including a Pentagon review focused on military threats in Asia and Bush's rebuff of South Korea's efforts to engage North Korea -- have increased those concerns, according to John Gershman, a China specialist at Princeton University.

As a result, Bush's demands during the first three days after the incident -- that China promptly return the crew and cease "tampering" with the plane itself -- fed the notion that the new administration was pursuing an "arrogant" and belligerent course without due regard for Beijing's interests and sensitivities. It reacted with indignation.

It was at that moment that Bush, apparently advised by his father's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, handed control of the negotiations to Powell who public expressed "regret" over the loss of the pilot's life. That was sufficient for Beijing to intensify negotiations over the precise wording of a formal letter that would unlock the door to a solution.

Powell's guiding role clearly bolsters his position within the administration, probably just in time. Until now, the former general had suffered an embarrassing series of policy defeats over Korea, Iraq, NMD, and global warming to administration hard-liners, notably Rumsfeld and Cheney.

"He was clearly going to be hung out to dry if things didn't go well," according to Gershman, who added that the administration may have received an important lesson: "Try diplomacy first, rather than be belligerent."

Bush has hopefully also learned that China "wants to be treated as an emerging, if not a big power, and doesn't want to be lectured to" and that Washington needs to urgently expand "military-to-military ties, so that there are more systematic lines of communication." For that reason, Gershman said he hoped that Bush would not approve the Aegis sale to Taiwan which could provoke China to suspend such ties.

But it may be too late for that, according to knowledgeable sources who said the administration was leaning toward withholding the Aegis from the arms package for Taiwan before the incident. "I don't see how they can deny the Aegis now from a political point of view," said one Congressional source.

Republican lawmakers, who had been pressed by the administration to restrain anti-Chinese rhetoric during the negotiations, nonetheless became increasingly angry over the past week. "The minimal price for their silence will be the Aegis," according to the source.

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Albion Monitor April 11, 2001 (

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