by Austin Bay
Once again Beijing has decided it's time to square off with
Guess what, America you're the devil du jour.
Start with this useful analytic rule: in a military incident,
such as the April Fool's Day collision between a US Navy recon
plane and a Chinese fighter-interceptor, never underestimate the
roles fear, stupidity and incompetence played in the actual
event. In the best of circumstances, with perfect weather and
crack pilots, aerial interception is a risky exercise.
Maneuvering large, fast-moving objects in close proximity takes
skill and experience. Frankly, mainland China's military pilot
corps isn't ready for prime time. The Chinese know it, the U.S.
military knows it. Chinese officials, of course, would prefer
that China's people not know it. For the Chinese military
engaged in political maneuvering back in Beijing, it's better to
blame the Americans than lose face and accept the shame of
At the same time, never underestimate a military incident's
potential for serious political consequences, no matter the
encounter's immediate circumstances.
The Pentagon says Chinese interceptors became increasingly
aggressive in late 2000. Fighters would slip to within ten feet
of US aircraft. To fly that tight you have to be good and
Chinese aircrews aren't.
The aggressive intercept policy precedes the arrival of the Bush
It's too pat to conclude the aggressive intercepts signaled
dissatisfaction with a new president who will consider providing
Taiwan with new defensive arms and who is not accepting campaign
contributions from Chinese intelligence officers.
Yes, the Chinese, as students of strategist Sun Tzu, do practice
the subtle arts of diplomatic sign language. This incident lacks
strategic subtlety. The Chinese reaction is as hasty and rash as
it is belligerent indications of their own surprise and
Instead of Sun Tzu with a subtle hand, it's a red-faced Hulk
Hogan with a ham-hand.
As this incident evolves, Beijing may well change its initial
confrontational tact in favor of a mature and moderate diplomatic
resolution. Beijing desperately wants to host the Olympic games.
A growing, confident China needs trading partners, stable
neighbors, and good will.
Rhetorical moderation accompanying the return of US aircrew and
plane, and a quick bilateral investigation of the unfortunate
collision these acts would signal a confident, secure China
interested in positive relations with the U.S.
Beijing, however, isn't secure. China's ruling clique its power
centers are still the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and the
Communist elites face an array of internal challenges.
- China's rapid economic liberalization has not produced
political liberalization. Modern communications mean the Chinese
population is no longer isolated from the global information net.
Economic freedom whets a taste for political freedom. Beijing's
authoritarians want both capitalist wealth and communist control.
They can't have both.
- China has a long history of regional friction. Beijing
confronts a dramatic imbalance in regional development. The East
Coast is rich, the central provinces lag, the western provinces
are further behind. Ethnic tensions persist. In western China,
Muslim Uighurs agitate for autonomy. Though it strikes many
observers as utterly unwarranted, the historical consequences of
the Taiping religious rebellion stirs fear of the Falun Gong
movement. Over the last three years there have been an increasing
number of labor protests.
- The dark side of economic expansion, without the securing
foundation of the democratic rule of law, is expansive,
debilitating corruption. Beijing has been cracking down. The
anti-corruption "purge of the periphery" which started picking
off corrupt provincial officials has moved toward the capital.
However, the anti-corruption drive may also mask one faction's
attempt to damage rivals. Recent defections by Chinese
intelligence officers may be a result of the anti-corruption
drive or the result of PLA infighting or both.
Concern exists among the cognoscenti that someday more than an
American turboprop and a Chinese jet will collide. China is a
regional Asian power with growing global clout. The U.S. is a
global "hyper-power." Someday vital American and Chinese
interests may slam into each other with the force of war.
PLA and Pentagon strategists don't dismiss the possibility.
However, the US-China War of 2025 is not inevitable. Washington
must continue to pursue a "dual track" diplomacy with Beijing, a
careful carrot-and-stick that encourages Chinese moderation and
integration while penalizing aggression and repression.
That's a tall order, especially when carrots are spurned and it's
It's especially tricky when an embarrassed Beijing stirs
international trouble in order to mask military mediocrity,
distract a restive populace and deflect domestic critics.