[TODAY]U.S.-China Relations on Collision CourseThere is never a good time for tension to prevail in the bilateral relations of such powerful countries as the United States and China. But the collision of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane laden with sophisticated surveillance equipment and a Chinese military fighter jet came at a particularly sensitive time, with President George W. Bush soon to make a decision on selling advanced weaponry to Taiwan against Chinese opposition. The advanced weapons Taiwan hopes to buy include four Aegis destroyers and Patriot anti-ballistic missiles. China's impressive missile network would be useless once Taiwan secured a system capable of detecting and intercepting missiles launched from across the Taiwan Strait.
U.S.-China relations have steadily deteriorated during the last 10 years due to a growing list of conflicts: the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo operation, the U.S. intervention to stop Israel from selling China advanced early-warning radar systems, and the continued U.S. sanctions that prevent China from acquiring the latest high-speed computers, all of which dealt blows to China's pride. China, for its part, has arrested Chinese-Americans on espionage charges, and together with Russia, it is leading international diplomatic efforts to oppose the development of an anti-missile defense system aimed at protecting the U.S. homeland from incoming missiles, a project Mr. Bush pursues with passion. The U.S.-China discord is a marked contrast from the days of bilateral cooperation. The United States sold China weapons and initiated a program to help China upgrade its avionics. The two countries joined hands to support anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, and U.S. spy agencies set up a listening post in China's far northeastern region to monitor communications traffic and nuclear tests by the Soviet armed forces.
The whole tone of U.S.-China relations changed and they began to drift apart after the socialist system in the former Soviet Union and East Europe collapsed in 1989 and 1990 when the elder Bush occupied the White House and the reasons for U.S.-China cooperation against the Soviet Union vanished. China may have perceived the United States as an opportunistic nation that forges and breaks alliances only to suit its strategic purposes. Bilateral relations further suffered after the Chinese crackdown on student-led protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
During President Bill Clinton's second term, U.S.-China relations managed to recover to the point of the United States perceiving China as a strategic partner. The inauguration of the Bush administration, however, introduced adversarial tones to bilateral relations again, with Mr. Bush calling China a strategic competitor instead of a partner.
And now the unfortunate mid-air collision has taken place. Experts who take a pessimistic view of U.S.-China stand-off already voice concern about a new Cold War. If the two countries decide to give undue consideration to domestic sentiments in handling the incident, and the opinions of the hawks in the Bush administration and the Chinese military prevail, the incident may escalate into a full-fledged crisis, threatening North-east Asian stability and creating grave repercussions, which are not desirable to the burgeoning North-South reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula.
China's handling of the latest incident is expected to be heavily swayed by how its leadership, centered on President Jiang Zemin, decides to deal with its military's demand to hold onto the U.S. Navy spy plane as long as possible to go over its sensitive intelligence-collection equipment, known to be the most advanced in the world.
Ever since being sworn into the White House, Mr. Bush has been going off on solo foreign policy tacks. He upset efforts toward North-South reconciliation with a series of tough remarks about North Korea. He announced that the U.S. would not abide by the 1997 Kyoto protocol on global warming. He bombed Iraq without provocation. He plans to abolish (or greatly modify) the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to eliminate a stumbling block to the national missile defense system. In short, he seems bent on going solo, in what can be viewed as a new type of isolationism, to better protect U.S. interests in disregard of other countries.
Our concern is that Mr. Bush's unilateral foreign policy might lead the United States to pursue the latest dispute and the arms sales to Taiwan with only U.S. interests in mind, without consideration for the positions of other countries in the region. We do not relish the thought of the smaller Asian states becoming victims again in a big-power confrontation. China should give up any unreasonable greed it might be nursing and return the U.S. surveillance plane and its crew as soon as possible. As for the United States, it should try to resolve the incident by indicating concerns about the fate of the missing Chinese pilot. If the two countries take such conciliatory steps, it might even be possible to look forward to U.S.-China relations improving in the aftermath of the air collision.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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