SCMP Thursday, April 5, 2001

Avoidable impasse

The continuing stand-off over the American spy plane is threatening to become a textbook example of how to turn a manageable incident into a fully fledged diplomatic confrontation.
Unless cooler heads prevail soon, the row could sabotage basic relations between China and the United States. And that would damage fundamental interests of both nations and the entire Asian region.
The danger point has not yet been reached, despite rising nationalistic rhetoric. No firm deadlines have been set by either side and some related demands seem to contain slight hints of flexibility. But the room for manoeuvre is shrinking and it is all too possible that tough conditions - ones deemed unacceptable by both sides - could be set forth in ways which make calm resolution impossible.
But the two governments need not have reached their current impasse, let alone drift deeper into trouble. They could have said jointly that the midair collision was an accident, for obviously neither plane was on a suicide mission. They might have agreed to withhold blame pending further investigation into the cause, sharing information in the process. And they could have called for consultation on ways to avoid similar future incidents.
The crew could then have been sent home promptly, even if the plane stayed behind and got thoroughly inspected by Chinese technicians - much as US specialists examined Soviet weaponry back in Cold War days.
However, nothing like that happened. President Jiang Zemin, just before beginning a lengthy Latin American tour, said again that the US must apologise and "bear all responsibility". But President George W. Bush says he will not apologise and China must release the crew quickly or risk "undermining" bilateral relations. The more they talk, the harder it becomes to compromise despite the many other vital issues before them.
The US will soon decide what new weapons to sell to Taiwan, and conservative politicians say this case proves that destroyers with Aegis radar systems must be included. With China's entry into the World Trade Organisation still pending, Congress will vote again this spring on granting normal trading rights. What once seemed automatic could be put in jeopardy. So could the WTO talks themselves, along with Mr Bush's planned October visit to an Asian summit in Shanghai.
In brief, what could have been treated as an annoyance is escalating into a grave international incident.
Mr Jiang, with Nato's bombing of China's Belgrade embassy fresh in everyone's mind, is being pressured by military and security officials to act tough. Mr Bush, getting his initial test in crisis management, has right-wingers telling him to do the same. All this makes clear once again that many Chinese and American people and officials deeply distrust each other. But that is a luxury neither side can afford, for prosperity and stability are at stake. They need to find ways to back down, compromise and move on.