Monday, December 2, 2013

Push back against the Chinese, but not too hard

Photo by Ross Steinberg

     Given how important China is to our economy, and what a pivotal role it will play in the global future, it's alarming how little Americans know about the most populous nation on earth. I would bet that not one in 100 could name its new premiere (Li Keqiang, and no, I didn't know either) and few grasp either the hostility that many Chinese feel toward the United States, or understand where their animosity came from. 

     Man-in-the-street interviews are usually the lowest rung of journalistic tedium. Tapping regular folk on the shoulder, collecting their unexceptional opinions about passing issues — “Why yes, it is cold.” “No, I prefer the fat Elvis stamp.”
     But one particular temperature-taking sticks in my mind and haunts me, more than a dozen years after I read them: the man-in-the-street chats with Chinese citizens after an American surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter plane collided April 1, 2001.
     The U.S. plane, an EP-3E Aries II, was a prop-driven mule — it looks like a passenger plane from the 1950s — plodding along at 207 mph when a Chinese J-8 fighter began buzzing it. The jet clipped one of the EP-3E’s four propellers. The Chinese jet broke in half and crashed; the U.S. spy plane was able to land on the Chinese island of Hainan.
     If anyone should have been indignant, it was the Americans. Our plane was operating in inter
national waters. The Chinese pilot caused the accident. But interviews with the Chinese revealed seething belligerence.
     "The United States thinks it can do anything it wants to us," a delivery man surnamed Wu told The New York Times. "Saying you're sorry isn't good enough. Americans need to know we aren't afraid of their bullying." They were hopping mad.
     As the two governments maneuvered to end the crisis — the crew of 24 ended up being held 11 days — the Chinese government seemed as worried about placating the intense nationalism of its public as they were about the Americans. A swath of the Chinese citizens viewed the incident, in which their pilot was killed, as the latest in a series of national humiliations going back to the Opium Wars that had to be avenged.
     "The battle is not over," Chinese officials reassured their public, which felt the U.S. was being let off the hook for its aggression.
     The episode gave me a sinking feeling that China won't be content forever churning out khaki pants and raking in our money. Once China's on top of the world, they're going to want to do something with it. Nobody ever bought a bike they didn't ride.
     The Hainan incident was eclipsed five months later by 9/11, an event greeted with glee in some quarters of China. But that feeling of aggrievement has not gone away, as evidenced by the latest Sino-U.S. faceoff.
     The issue is a block of airspace in the East China Sea, which the Chinese two weeks ago announced is now an "Air Defense Identification Zone" that could not be entered by aircraft from other countries without receiving their permission first.
     On Friday, a pair of American surveillance planes, accompanied by 10 Japanese aircraft, flew into the zone to see what would happen. What happened is the Chinese scrambled their fighter jets, and suddenly the world feels like a more dangerous place.
     The specifics are trivial; two uninhabited flyspeck islands that Japan controls but the Chinese say rightfully belong to them.
     Still, this is a high-stakes balancing act. If we back down and let China make whatever claims it wants, then we are living in China's world, and we will not like that world. If we press them too hard, however, we'll be fighting with China, and that would be bad.
     When dealing with China, time is our friend. Capitalist democracy is self-administering, and we've seen China soften, just last month announcing it was dropping its one-child policy and forced labor camps for political prisoners. That's still far from becoming Evanston writ large, true, but the longer we don't slide into World War III with them, the more remote that possibility becomes. Ten years ago we worried about war between China and Taiwan. Now China and Taiwan seem happily on the road to getting married.
     The Obama administration urged U.S. airlines to respect China's no-fly zone, even as U.S. military planes defy it. That makes sense. This situation won't be helped by a Boeing 767 with 300 people aboard being shot down by some trigger-happy Chinese top gun, a new Lusitania to drive Americans into the same kind of bellicose frenzy that some Chinese people seem already in.
     The Japanese, on the other hand, ordered their commercial carriers to continue to fly through the disputed space without offering notice, so as not to give the Chinese claims legitimacy. That makes sense, too. Yielding to aggression leads to more aggression.
     The American domestic situation has been so messed up, between political gridlock, government shutdown, economic morass, health care rollout fiasco and on and on, that we didn't worry much about the rest of the world. Now that seems like another luxury we can no longer afford. Hello China.

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