WELL, WE can all breathe a sigh of relief for now. At least until the president has to make the final decision to sell arms to Taiwan, we can relax. Our fliers are home, thank goodness, safe and sound. What is not quite so safe or sound is the state of relations between our country and China. In fact, it is safe to say that they have fallen to their lowest point since the Tiananmen Square massacre way back when we were in elementary school. We don't trust the Chinese. In turn, the Chinese think we are trying to take over the world. In some respects, maybe we already have.
Whether we like it or not, China will one day be a superpower. Depending on how you define that term, it might be one already. Sometime in the next few years, it will have the largest economy in the world. When it achieves global superpower status, whether it does so as a friend or foe of the U.S. depends entirely on decisions our leaders make.
If we continue to paint China as the Soviet Union Part II, it will be the biggest foreign policy mistake in a generation.
That said, let's make one thing painstakingly clear: What happened over the South China Sea was entirely the Chinese pilot's fault. As many of you now know, the late Chinese pilot Wang Wei made three passes around our spy plane, which as Time told us last week, carries the nickname, "the Flying Pig." Clearly this is not an aircraft that Maverick and Iceman would use. On the first two passes, Wang came between three to five feet of our plane. In previous encounters, Wang has been known to come so close to American planes that he would flash his e-mail address to our pilots. So as you can see, this man's death is tragic, but it is obvious he was not playing with a full deck.
China claims territorial sovereignty over a much wider area outside its coasts than the recognized international standard. In their mind, we didn't just land in their territory; we were flying in it the entire time. When you factor in some of the other recent American "humiliations" for which the Chinese love to heap pity on themselves, you understand why they got so worked up over what was no more than a tragic accident.
President Bush handled the incident as well or better than anyone expected him to. The most admirable part of his handling of the incident was that he put the right wing in a box, and kept it there. In the days after the incident, a lot of ultra-conservative radio pundits and other assorted buffoons were hurling all sorts of vitriol in China's direction.
One idiot radio host from Cincinnati - his name escapes me now - even implied that we should bomb Beijing if our Navy personnel were not returned in three days. Such thinking is utterly absurd, but it does reflect a larger, more dangerous perception in our country that China is gradually morphing into the next Evil Empire. While they do share the Soviet Union's atrocious human rights record, in no way are the Chinese set on making themselves into the USSR's sequel. Not if they can avoid it.
All the chest-thumping and anti-American sentiment you hear from China is not just for fun. It is the result of the Chinese Communist Party's need for a new reason for existing.
Socialism, in case anyone still fails to get the point, has been discredited as a complete failure. Since the Chinese government can't just flat out admit that, yes, capitalism is good, it has to come up with a substitute ideology. It chose nationalism, and that is why you hear so much nationalist fervor coming out of that country.
In order to distinguish between the Soviets and today's China, look no further than their goals. The Soviet Union, right up until its collapse, sought to increase its territory and spread its ideology around the world. China, since the death of Mao a quarter-century ago, has no such ambitions. Certainly, it wants to become a global economic player, but so does every other country. There is no credible reason to believe that China has any extra-territorial ambitions beyond making itself the dominant player in East Asia. With well over a billion people and a developing economy, that is not an unreasonable request.
China should pay a price for its overreaction to this recent incident, but this price should not be so steep as to jeopardize what is an otherwise productive if sometimes contentious relationship. If our leaders seek to dupe us into believing China is the next Evil Empire, that is exactly what we will get in return. If, on the other hand, we continue to encourage its economic reforms, the political reforms will follow in turn. Maybe not as fast as we would like, but they will arrive eventually. The bilateral relationship between China and America will be the most important one of our professional lives. We would do best to assure our leaders make it a healthy one.
(Timothy DuBoff's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)