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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
Assessing the diplomatic damage
Anti-US billboard at Hainan University
A billboard condemns American conduct as "disgusting"
By world affairs correspondent Nick Childs

The crisis over the fate of the American spy plane and its 24 crew detained for 11 days in China could hardly have come at a worse time for the two sides.

Each was still sizing the other up following President George W Bush's election in the United States.

Beijing and Washington also have a difficult diplomatic calendar ahead over the next few months.

US arms sales to Taiwan, Chinese human rights, Beijing's membership of the World Trade Organisation and US plans for a missile defence system are all looming large.

Sensitivities

President Bush
President Bush: Diplomatic test
The incident also played to the sensitivities of both sides: Beijing's over what it sees as US military hegemony, Washington's over whether China is a country with which it can really do business.

Clearly the danger was that each country would back itself into a corner.

There was obvious international foreboding, fuelled by a suspicion that the new Bush administration was shaping up anyway to be more confrontational than the outgoing one in its dealings with Beijing.

But the fact that, in the end, the two sides have found a diplomatic way through is a reflection perhaps of how high the stakes are in their overall relationship.

Not over yet

Washington will still want its plane back, and there is as yet no agreement over what exactly led to the mid-air collision.

A billboard showing former President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hainan
China has noticed a change of style since the Clinton era
It is too early to say whether lasting diplomatic damage has been done, or which side - if either - has emerged the winner.

There will be huge relief in the United States that the crew was released, although some on the right will argue that Washington has given too much ground.

A similar debate may unfold behind closed doors in Beijing.

One salutary lesson from this episode is that it was a reminder of how unexpected events on the ground can threaten to blow even the best-laid strategic planning off course.


Key stories:

Analysis

Spy plane row

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See also:

11 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
09 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
07 Apr 01 | Americas
08 Apr 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
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