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    A Times Editorial

    Dealing with Beijing

    Another U.S.-China crisis is inevitable if the two governments don't take this opportunity to address the underlying tensions in their relationship.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001


    The agreement leading to the release of the crew of the American spy plane detained in China is a triumph of honorable diplomacy over short-sighted saber-rattling. The Bush administration deserves credit for charting a steady course that won the crew's release after only 11 days, without an unwarranted American apology. If the standoff had lasted much longer, the bellicose voices in Washington and Beijing would have become even more insistent, increasing the risk of a more serious crisis that would have been in neither country's interests.

    However, this incident was symptomatic of the broader tensions that define modern U.S.-China relations. Unless representatives of the two governments take this opportunity to address those underlying tensions more candidly than they have in recent years, a more serious crisis is just a matter of time.

    The accident that killed a Chinese fighter pilot and forced our EP-3E spy plane to make an emergency landing in Chinese territory was the result of an escalating cat-and-mouse game over U.S. reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea. The Chinese understandably resent such intrusive intelligence-gathering so close to their coastline, but they resist any serious review of the provocative actions on their part that necessitate a strong American presence in the region.

    In particular, the U.S. presence cannot be reduced until Beijing backs off its more menacing posture toward Taiwan. For years, the United States and China shared a convenient fiction that the Taiwan issue would magically resolve itself over time. The inherent clash between Beijing's claims on Taiwan and Washington's military support of the tiny island was compartmentalized as the U.S.-Chinese trade relationship expanded. Recently, though, Beijing has escalated its rhetoric and its military provocations aimed at Taiwan. Beijing also has threatened dire consequences if the Bush administration decides to sell new destroyers and sophisticated radar systems to Taiwan. Before this incident, that decision was expected by the end of April.

    The mixed signals from China over the past few days have given clearer definition to the ideological debate taking place within the Beijing leadership. For all of their bluster, however, China's leaders ultimately tried to avoid any action that would threaten their growing economic relationship with the United States, their desire to host the 2008 Olympics and their evolving role in the world community. That is a lesson U.S. officials should keep in mind as they continue to press Beijing on issues such as the suppression of political dissent and the subjugation of Tibet. If Beijing really wants the EP-3Es to go away, it can start changing the behavior that makes their presence necessary.

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