Other Views

By Ralph A. Cossa

Saturday, June 5, 1999


THE accidental U.S. missile attack against the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade will have long-term negative consequences for Sino-U.S. relations, especially if both sides continue to mishandle the tragic affair.

Ten days in China have convinced me that the frustration and anger among Chinese citizens is genuine. But their government seems more intent on exploiting these feelings than on addressing them, and the U.S. seems more focused on Chinese reaction to the incident than providing a full accounting of the tragedy.

The Chinese government orchestrated demonstrations, which resulted in considerable damage and a virtual state of siege at the American Embassy in Beijing.

But the demonstrations were not contrived; the outpouring of anger was real. Even among students and professors who were getting their updates from CNN and the World Wide Web, a sense of anger and frustration prevailed.

The embassy attack came after months of accusations regarding Chinese spying, and after Premier Zhu Rongji came home embarrassed and empty-handed from Washington despite making politically risky concessions to open the door for Chinese WTO membership.

It came after China was "thoroughly humiliated" by Washington, not only by dismissing Beijing's complaints against NATO's illegal actions and lack of U.N. involvement or approval, but specifically by the "U.S.-led NATO" decision to commence the bombing of Yugoslavia while Chinese President Jiang Zemin was in Europe -- seen as a deliberate insult.

Beijing had been ritualistically complaining about Washington's "interventionist" tendencies, but deep down inside did not believe that the U.S. would directly challenge China. Only small, weak, relatively defenseless (i.e. non-nuclear) states were at risk. The embassy attack further personalized this issue.

One should never attribute to deviousness that which can be explained by incompetence or stupidity. But even scholars who had studied in the U.S. believed that this was a "planned accident" by "rogue elements" in the CIA or U.S. military out to embarrass the Clinton administration and China.

None of this excuses the Chinese decision to stand by and let the demonstrators trash the U.S. Embassy. Through that and their biased reporting, Beijing managed to turn what should have been wide-spread U.S. sympathy into even greater anger and intolerance toward China.

The delay in President Clinton's issuance of a sincere, personal apology was inexcusable to the Chinese.

Many young people I talked with wanted to believe the attack was an accident. But they argued that the longer the U.S. waits in providing a full accounting, the more it becomes apparent that it must have been done on purpose.

The country that many had hailed as a bastion of democracy is now being viewed as a rogue superpower, an uncaring bully that places high value on American lives but casually dismisses its own killing of innocent Chinese citizens.

THE next generation of Chinese leaders will consider the embassy attack, and how America responds to it, as a defining moment in much the same way the current generation of U.S. leaders have been influenced by Tiananmen.

Meanwhile, Chinese leaders must understand that constant references to "the barbaric U.S.-led NATO air attack" send a strong signal to Washington that Beijing is not interested in promoting and sustaining a constructive future relationship.

A respected Chinese scholar pointed out to me that U.S.-China relations need two elements to succeed: a willingness to build upon our common national interests and sufficient mutual trust to permit this effort to proceed. Rebuilding trust and confidence will require a concerted effort by both governments, but the ball is currently in the U.S. court. Washington must move forward with a comprehensive explanation of the tragedy.

Ralph A. Cossa is executive director of the Pacific Forum/CSIS
in Honolulu, a nonprofit, foreign policy research institute
affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington, D.C.

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