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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
China-US: Beijing's brinkmanship
Chinese soldiers
The military influenced China in handling the standoff
By Asia analyst Tim Luard

When the US spy plane was forced to make an emergency landing on China's southern Hainan island, China's military can have hardly believed their good fortune.


Just what behind-the-scenes deals may have been done, in terms of arms sales to Taiwan or anything else, may not emerge for years

A highly sophisticated piece of equipment full of the secrets of the world's leading power was theirs for the taking.

Holding the crew as its "guests" for a while would give them more time to examine their prize.

The military proceeded to play a major role in influencing the way China handled the ensuing standoff.

Military backing

Fuelling anti-US sentiment is always useful for an army that wants funds to expand and modernise.

In this case it was an easy task, given the loss of a Chinese pilot and the initial attitude of the US side.

Jiang Zemin
President Jiang wants to achieve the status of a great leader
The Americans were proclaiming that it was their right to spy on China and were demanding the immediate return of their crew and plane, which they insisted was "sovereign" property, and should not be touched.

To many, this was reminiscent of the days when China was pushed around by arrogant foreign imperialists.

Flushed by what they saw as a climate of support and admiration for the fact that they were standing up to the world's superpower, the military pushed on.

They demanded not only a full apology but also an end to the surveillance missions the US had been carrying out for half a century.

Status

China's powerful security complex - including the People's Liberation Army and the Ministry of State Security - had an ally in the shape of Jiang Zemin.

A Chinese stands near a copy of a magazine featuring President Bush
China demanded an end to the surveillance missions
As he prepares to hand on power to the next generation, China's stolid president needs to appear strong and nationalistic in his efforts to achieve the status of a great leader like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.

He - and the communist party itself - also need the support of the military.

Other, more reformist leaders like the prime minister Zhu Rongji have been conspicuous by their absence.

But as the standoff continued, with Washington making all the running while Beijing stood its ground stubbornly, there must have been growing concern among such leaders about the impact this was having on China's longterm attempts to integrate, economically and otherwise, with the rest of the world.

Chinese spokesmen might say the US would be shooting itself in the foot if it imposed trade sanctions. But the wound to China would be far more serious.

Compromise

After all, it is largely exports to the US and investment from the US that has fuelled China's economic boom.

Zhu Rongji
Prime minister Zhu Rongji is considered a more reformist leader
What's more, the prolonged detention of the crew and refusal to contemplate any sort of compromise have begun to look increasingly at odds with the softer, more co-operative image China wants to project in its twin attempts to join the World Trade Organisation and host the 2008 Olympics.

Eventually it became clear that the military and other hardliners had been persuaded it was time to stop.

The Americans had let it be known that they had climbed down all they could - through various shades of regret - but would go no further.

President Jiang himself expressed confidence that an "adequate solution" could after all be found.

The state-run media suddenly latched onto US Secretary of State's use of the word "sorry" three days ago.

'Humanitarian grounds'

And it began preparing the Chinese public for a confirmation that their missing airman is dead.

China received a letter in which Washington says it is "very sorry" over the incident.

It decided to release the crew on "humanitarian grounds", although it did not say why it was feeling more humanitarian than when they arrived.

A Chinese walks past an American coffee shop
Investment from the US has fuelled China's economic boom
According to Xinhua, the letter said Washington is "very sorry that the entering of China's airspace and landing did not have verbal clearance".

But clearly this is not the sought-for full apology or admission that the US was to blame for the collision itself or should not have been in the area in the first place.

The US Secretary of State had already acknowledged at the weekend a violation of Chinese airspace when the stricken US plane sought to land.

So, the brinkmanship ended.

Implications

Tying up the loose ends will take some time. It's not yet clear what will become of the plane - though it seems the Americans long ago gave up hope for it.

The White House
Washington acknowledged a violation of Chinese airspace
The convening of a safety commission to hear both sides' views of the incident will presumably follow in due course.

Just what behind-the-scenes deals may have been done, in terms of arms sales to Taiwan or anything else, may not emerge for years.

But the implications of this episode for China's relations with the rest of the world are considerable.

In the meantime, somehow, both American and Chinese leaders will try to convince their people that they stuck to their principles and came away with "face" intact.


Key stories:

Analysis

Spy plane row

AUDIO VIDEO

INTERACTIVE GUIDE

TALKING POINT
See also:

11 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
11 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
11 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
10 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
09 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
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