by Austin Bay
Once again Beijing has decided it's time to square off with"foreign enemies."
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 reconplane and a Chinese fighter-interceptor, never underestimate theroles fear, stupidity and incompetence played in the actualevent. In the best of circumstances, with perfect weather andcrack pilots, aerial interception is a risky exercise.Maneuvering large, fast-moving objects in close proximity takesskill and experience. Frankly, mainland China's military pilotcorps isn't ready for prime time. The Chinese know it, the U.S.military knows it. Chinese officials, of course, would preferthat China's people not know it. For the Chinese militaryengaged in political maneuvering back in Beijing, it's better toblame the Americans than lose face and accept the shame ofmediocrity.
At the same time, never underestimate a military incident'spotential for serious political consequences, no matter theencounter's immediate circumstances.
The Pentagon says Chinese interceptors became increasinglyaggressive in late 2000. Fighters would slip to within ten feetof US aircraft. To fly that tight you have to be good andChinese aircrews aren't.
The aggressive intercept policy precedes the arrival of the BushAdministration.
It's too pat to conclude the aggressive intercepts signaleddissatisfaction with a new president who will consider providingTaiwan with new defensive arms and who is not accepting campaigncontributions from Chinese intelligence officers.
Yes, the Chinese, as students of strategist Sun Tzu, do practicethe subtle arts of diplomatic sign language. This incident lacksstrategic subtlety. The Chinese reaction is as hasty and rash asit is belligerent indications of their own surprise andmilitary embarrassment.
Instead of Sun Tzu with a subtle hand, it's a red-faced HulkHogan with a ham-hand.
As this incident evolves, Beijing may well change its initialconfrontational tact in favor of a mature and moderate diplomaticresolution. Beijing desperately wants to host the Olympic games.A growing, confident China needs trading partners, stableneighbors, and good will.
Rhetorical moderation accompanying the return of US aircrew andplane, and a quick bilateral investigation of the unfortunatecollision these acts would signal a confident, secure Chinainterested in positive relations with the U.S.
Beijing, however, isn't secure. China's ruling clique its powercenters are still the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and theCommunist elites face an array of internal challenges.
- China's rapid economic liberalization has not producedpolitical liberalization. Modern communications mean the Chinesepopulation is no longer isolated from the global information net.Economic freedom whets a taste for political freedom. Beijing'sauthoritarians want both capitalist wealth and communist control.They can't have both.
- China has a long history of regional friction. Beijingconfronts a dramatic imbalance in regional development. The EastCoast is rich, the central provinces lag, the western provincesare further behind. Ethnic tensions persist. In western China,Muslim Uighurs agitate for autonomy. Though it strikes manyobservers as utterly unwarranted, the historical consequences ofthe Taiping religious rebellion stirs fear of the Falun Gongmovement. Over the last three years there have been an increasingnumber of labor protests.
- The dark side of economic expansion, without the securingfoundation of the democratic rule of law, is expansive,debilitating corruption. Beijing has been cracking down. Theanti-corruption "purge of the periphery" which started pickingoff corrupt provincial officials has moved toward the capital.However, the anti-corruption drive may also mask one faction'sattempt to damage rivals. Recent defections by Chineseintelligence officers may be a result of the anti-corruptiondrive or the result of PLA infighting or both.
Concern exists among the cognoscenti that someday more than anAmerican turboprop and a Chinese jet will collide. China is aregional Asian power with growing global clout. The U.S. is aglobal "hyper-power." Someday vital American and Chineseinterests 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. Washingtonmust continue to pursue a "dual track" diplomacy with Beijing, acareful carrot-and-stick that encourages Chinese moderation andintegration while penalizing aggression and repression.
That's a tall order, especially when carrots are spurned and it'sstick time.
It's especially tricky when an embarrassed Beijing stirsinternational trouble in order to mask military mediocrity,distract a restive populace and deflect domestic critics.