Gathering Places


Sunday, April 22, 2001

Seeing mid-air collision
from China’s perspective

AS AN AMERICAN, I was relieved that the recent collision of the U.S. spy plane with the Chinese jet fighter has ended with safe return of the American crew.

As a Chinese American, however, I was saddened by calls from some fellow Americans to retaliate against China for detaining the U.S. crew by imprisoning Chinese Americans, boycotting Chinese restaurants and firing Chinese-American civil servants. As a person who has closely watched the course of U.S.-China relations for many years, I am gravely concerned about the jingoistic hue and cry being picked up by responsible and influential voices.

Those who have roundly condemned China's actions are lacking perspective that would help the American public understand why China has become so belligerent and why it seeks to determine for itself the rights and wrongs in this situation. Having that perspective could help keep this unfortunate incident from forcing U.S.-China relations into a tailspin from which recovery will be increasingly difficult.

Such perspective has nothing to do with excusing the bad behavior by the Chinese so much as realizing that, perhaps, their reactions are not necessarily so different from what we would do under the same circumstances.

If the roles had been reversed and it was the Chinese who routinely sent aircraft to spy on our defenses along the California coast, and one of its spy planes collided with a U.S. jet fighter that was scrambled to intercept it resulting in the death of our pilot and the emergency landing of the Chinese spy plane at a U.S. air base, we surely would have done much the same. We would we have detained and interrogated the Chinese crew, climbed all over the Chinese spy plane, and raised all kinds of hell over the death of our pilot and the spying off our coast.

Forty years ago we nearly went to war over Cuba's installation of Soviet missiles on its own sovereign soil. We narrowly avoided World War III and nuclear conflagration when the Cubans and Soviets backed down by removing the missiles. Among the sabers the Bush administration and the Congress are rattling now would permit the sale of advanced weaponry to Taiwan, the small set of islands off the coast of China where the losing side in China's civil war retreated 50 years ago.

Until recently, there was never any real dispute that Taiwan was part of China, a claim of sovereignty we never had for Cuba. What Cuba meant to us, Taiwan means to China, except much more so. Further, China is no more willing to tolerate interference in its dealings with Taiwan than we were willing to accept from foreign powers during our civil war.

Two hundred years ago, we adopted the Monroe Doctrine, a policy that warned foreign powers that we would not tolerate their interference with our interests in the Americas. Today our security interests extend the world over, and we have essentially extended the Monroe Doctrine with it. While we Americans may feel this is necessary, this view is not universally shared.

China apparently has its own version of the Monroe Doctrine that, not surprisingly, is rubbing up against our own. Viewed from this perspective, demonizing China for its ambitions appears self-serving and hypocritical.

More importantly, it obscures the real nature of our relationship with China as a competitor, not a foe. If we acknowledge that the Chinese have a right to their ambitions just as we have to ours, perhaps we can keep the damage that results when we collide at a repairable level.

As has been noted by many China experts, there is no guarantee that being friendly with China will make her our friend. But treating China like an enemy will certainly make her one. Failing to consider China's perspective and exclusively favoring our own will surely achieve the same result.

After all, in these situations the question of who was right or wrong is a matter of perspective.

Hoyt Zia is a former Marine officer and
Clinton administration official.

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