[OUTLOOK] Avoiding a More Serious CollisionEvery country carries out spying activities to gather intelligence. It is an open secret that countries usually feign ignorance of these activities. A dispute over spying operations is soon settled when bilateral relations are amicable, but it can easily escalate into a crisis if it comes at a sensitive time. For nearly two weeks since a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese F-8 on April 1 and the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Hainan island in southern China, the two countries fought a battle of pride before partially resolving the incident with the release of the U.S. crew.
The midair collision is significant in terms of the site and the timing. First, the accident took place in a key strategic location in the South China Sea, which is used as the passage for transporting Middle East oil to Northeast Asia. In a recent article in the Foreign Affairs magazine, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said: "China is a great power with unresolved vital interests, particularly concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea. China is not a 'status quo' power but one that would like to alter Asia's balance of power in its own favor."
The oil transportation line passing through the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea continues to Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. It is also in the path of the Asia defense line that the U.S. 7th Fleet used to check China and Russia from advancing southward. The collision site is not simply China's frontier, but the borderline of the balance of power the United States and China each established.
As for the timing, it took place with the annual U.S.-Taiwan meeting of military leaders around the corner and with Washington accelerating its plan to establish a national missile defense system. Taiwan is also trying to buy sensitive weaponry from the United States, including Aegis destroyers which Taiwan sees as vital to defend itself against Chinese missiles arrayed against it. China demanded that Washington suspend its arms sales but did not receive a satisfactory answer. A string of other incidents also created tension in bilateral relations, such as China's detention of scholars with American links on charges of espionage and a Chinese military officer's defection to the United States.
For the last several years, since the return of Hong Kong and Macao, China has been steadily expanding its power in the region. For China, Taiwan symbolizes national integration, recovery of national sovereignty and preservation of its territory. Its hopes of integrating with Taiwan become more distant if Taiwan forges a quasi-military alliance with the United States. China, therefore, may perceive the United States to be encroaching on its power base.
The United States, meanwhile, is concerned because China, which accumulated great national wealth through trade with the United States, joined Russia to oppose the U.S. national missile shield program, augmented its defense budget to 17 billion dollars, and deployed additional missiles targeting Taiwan. The United States may interpret such moves as a challenge to the balance of power that it maintained in Asia for 50 years.
The problem is the two countries' attempts to turn the collision into a political issue based on such bilateral perceptions. China is not backing off from its demand for an apology from Washington, and also denounces the Bush administration's hard-line foreign policy. It is trying to show that China is not to be trifled with. The United States initially only expressed regrets over the accident and, despite the return the 24 U.S. crew members, still wants its surveillance plane returned. The United States has not apologized for conducting the reconnaissance.
With each day that passed during the stalemate, an increasing number of people in each country began to regard the other as an enemy. The standoff seems to have eroded support in the U.S. Congress for stronger ties with China, for it is now actively recommending arms sales to Taiwan in what appears to be a support for Mr. Bush's tough foreign policy.
Although the United States and China are not allies, they have established diplomatic relations and maintained a close economic relationship. They should bear in mind that the accident did not take place during wartime. We can hope that the two countries will follow through in setting up a joint fact-finding team to investigate the circumstances of the accident and find a rational solution to the remaining issues. If they wish to maintain their national pride, they should handle the accident transparently and clear up misunderstandings. A prolonged standoff could damage bilateral relations in economic, political, and military areas and become the seeds of undermining the national interests of both countries.
Because the accident took place in a location crucial to Asian security and energy transportation, Korea and other Asian countries, sandwiched between the two powerful countries, might suffer if the incident escalates into a struggle for hegemony. We hope the two countries will use reason to settle the issue and prevent a recurrence.
The writer is a professor of international relations at Sejong University.
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