Continuing U.S.-China Spy Plane Standoff
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the view from China, we go to Yasheng Huang, professor of business, government, and the international economy at the Harvard Business School. He is a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. Kenneth Lieberthal, a member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He’s currently professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and he just returned from a trip to Beijing. And Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; he was born and raised in China, and has been an American citizen since 1999.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Huang, who is so important about the notion that there ought to be an apology? Why is that the big hang-up here?
YASHENG HUANG: I think one of the reasons that China feels frustrated by this incident because China doesn’t have the technological capability to do what the United States is capable of doing to China, which is to spy on the United States. And because it doesn’t have that capability, it is demanding the U.S. to make some sort of symbolic gesture to make sure that its citizens believe that the government can be… can stand up to the United States. I think that’s one reason. The other reason is that one of their pilots died. And none of the U.S. crew members was injured, and so there is some… at a human level, there is an emotional outburst.
GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Pei, is this a question of a trade-off here between a militarily insecure super power versus another one?
MINXIN PEI: I think there are other reasons. First of all, the Chinese demand, as your piece did, was raised only after President George Bush raised his demand. So it could be understood in the context of responding to a rather severe or stern demand from the White House. So it’s a kind of Chinese escalation. But on the other hand, I do think — because I’ve been talking to my Chinese friends in China — the Chinese people do believe that they are the injured party as the ambassador said, because they feel somehow that national privacy — if there’s such a thing — was violated by Americans spying or American reconnaissance flights. Remember, these flights occur almost on a daily basis of 200 a year. So every weekday there’s such a flight. So they do feel quite resentful about this.
GWEN IFILL: So, Professor Lieberthal, you were just in Beijing. Is your sense — as is the sense from Mr. Pei talking to his friends in China — that this is such a… this is such a problem, this continuing insult of the surveillance planes from the U.S., that an apology would be enough to address that?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, first of all, I think the Chinese see the U.S. as powerful and too muscular in the way we approach China. And so I heard repeatedly, you know, you’re many thousands of miles away and this plane was 80 miles from our coast. What gives you the right to be there and to act that way toward us? Would an apology alone resolve all these feelings? Obviously not. They want an apology because they want the U.S. to say that fundamentally it was the U.S. presence and the U.S. unwillingness to cut back on these flights or keep them farther from China that caused this accident. But really we are dealing with a very complex, multi-faceted relationship with China. It’s one that we will want to try to massage to overall see China conclude that it is better to work with us than to mobilize popular opinion against us. That’s part of the trick of diplomacy that’s involved here.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Professor Lieberthal, here’s the latest piece of that complicated relationship. The wire services are reporting that traveling in Uruguay today that President Jiang has said, quote, “taking into the account the important role of the two countries we have to find a solution. I trust in the ability of both countries to resolve this issue.” But he goes on to say he still requires an apology. Is that any kind of movement to your ear?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think so. I think what we’re seeing on both sides here is a set of subtle but significant moves to signal that there is progress being made, that they are very close to reaching wording that will meet the vital needs of each side. We have made clear we are not going to say the words “we apologize because we were at fault.” But at the same time they made clear that they will release our crew as part of this negotiated outcome. And I think this will end up using some phraseology that communicates more clearly in Chinese than it does in English some sense of culpability — while the English distances ourselves from that. There are actually differences in the two languages that should enable diplomats to bridge that gulf and satisfy the vital needs of both sides.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pei, what do you make of that? Do you think that both President Jiang and President Bush perhaps have some domestic, internal political issues at work here?
MINXIN PEI: Well, certainly today’s press remarks made by Chinese President Jiang Zemin represent a step forward. I think in the case of President Jiang Zemin he does have domestic constituencies to take care of. He is now a strong man in the sense that we understand the term. He controls collective leadership. Or he supervises collective leadership. That’s why he must listen not only to the Chinese foreign ministry who is favorably disposed to resolve this but also to the military and the two other groups within the Chinese bureaucracy.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Huang, is this why the diplomacy that President Bush alluded to today, how much time diplomacy takes — is this why it has taken so long, because there are so many actors involved in this?
YASHENG HUANG: I think that’s one of the key reasons that it is taking a very, very long time. What has happened in the Sino-U.S. relationship is that no longer is that relationship controlled only by the policy- makers in both countries. In this country, people in the business community and people in the labor union, human rights groups, have different and competing views about that relationship. In China, it’s the same thing. The bureaucracy has one view, the economic bureaucracy has one view, foreign policy bureaucracy has another view, and the public now is increasingly asserting its views on the foreign policy, making in a way that Chinese public was never able to do before.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask….
YASHENG HUANG: The military has its own agenda so this is a very complex situation. I’m not surprised it’s taking so long.
GWEN IFILL: On that point, is it the public opinion that’s changing or is it the press, the government-controlled press which is changing this tough talk?
YASHENG HUANG: No, I think the public opinion is changing. We’re not just talking about this particular incident. You remember ten years ago, less than ten years ago, the Chinese public was very pro West. The intellectuals were very pro West. In the last ten years, the public opinion toward the United States has shifted dramatically from a pro-Western view to an anti-Western view. And this is not only because of the government propaganda. There is a perception among the Chinese public that the U.S. has a systematic program of containing China. We can debate whether that view is right or wrong. But it has played a role in changing Chinese perception about the intentions of this country towards China.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pei?
MINXIN PEI: Just a quick note. I spoke to a friend of mine who works in the Chinese press. She told me that initially the government controlled the press very, very tightly, did not allow them to report on this incident. However, in the last few days, the government’s control was being violated by the Chinese press because they saw this as a golden opportunity to assert their voice and independence. Of course, the impact on the Chinese politics as a whole may not be very helpful for the Chinese government.
GWEN IFILL: Does that mean if the press then has a more active role in saying what’s actually happening, for instance, reporting today for the first time that there are even diplomatic talks going on between the U.S. and Beijing, does that mean, does that create a climate for resolution of this?
MINXIN PEI: No. It all depends on what kind of reporting is happening. You cannot avoid making the mistake of sensationalism in reporting this because I think the Chinese journalists may not have the same kind of access to information as the journalists here. So a particular point of view may dominate the reporting on this. And that can seriously tie the hands of the Chinese government.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Lieberthal, you were just there. What’s your take on that?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think clearly public opinion is playing a larger role. I do not think it is the driving force in the resolution of this particular crisis in part because the government has been careful to keep public opinion from exploding into demonstrations. It’s controlled some of the chat room content and so forth. So, to my mind, the biggest problem to moving this forward more rapidly has been the Chinese military. Jiang Zemin, the president, is trying to shape his own succession at this point. The last thing in the world he wants to do is to see this conclude in a way where the Chinese military is going to start putting out the word that this man caved in to U.S. pressure and sold out China’s interests. So he wants to get a resolution that doesn’t tear apart the U.S.-China relationship but that does at the same time go far enough to bring the military into support of the basic approach that he’s taken. I think that’s the key….
GWEN IFILL: In your opinion, how does he do that, in your opinion?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think it’s in part by slow-walking the resolution so that he, you know, puts pressure on the U.S. and uses all the diplomatic time available. It’s in part by maintaining his insistence on an apology. He is going to back off of that in a very subtle fashion in the final resolution but he’s hanging tough until that final moment. And then we don’t know, but there may be negotiations behind the scenes where Jiang is getting engaged in some issues, even military promotions, of budget issues and that kind of thing that will help to convince the military that his heart is in the right place. That’s a part of the system that frankly we can’t monitor closely enough to be sure of, but it wouldn’t be surprising if that was also part of the mix.
GWEN IFILL: He doesn’t get back to the country, to China, until the 17th of this month.
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: That’s correct.
GWEN IFILL: Do you anticipate that anything could be resolved before then?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Yeah, I think it can. They have good communications on the plane, good communications as he travels around. His being absent certainly does delay things by some hours at least, but it isn’t as if he’s not able to communicate via secure communications back to Beijing.
GWEN IFILL: How about that, Professor Huang, how long can this stand-off continue?
YASHENG HUANG: First, let me agree with Professor Lieberthal about his point about military. But in the last 20 years of reforms, the conservative political voices in China have lost the battle many, many times, but they tend to gain political strength when the public is perceived to be behind the conservative voice. I think in this particular instance, the public has sided with more conservative voices in the government and that… that’s the channel whereby the public voice has begun to matter for the policy-making. In terms of how long this thing is going to continue, I think it’s going to be resolved in a matter of days rather than in a matter of months. The two countries have too big a stake in this, and President Jiang Zemin’s statement about the importance of the U.S., the Sino-U.S. relationship, indicates that he is determined to bring this thing to a close. There are many, many people who have a lot to gain from the resolution of this issue peacefully and quickly in China, and I think they are going to push their view too.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pei, today the discussion in this country has been so much about whether these 24 service people should be called hostages or detainees. Does that debate have any bearing at all on the discussion in China?
MINXIN PEI: I don’t know how subtle the distinction is. I think how the Chinese are aware of the subtlety in this distinction. But I think there is a way of providing an interim resolution, that is, to allow the American crew to be housed, say, in an American diplomatic compound… inside the U.S. consulate. That will certainly resolve the issue. And of course, before this thing comes to final closure, the crew is not supposed to leave China. And I think if they can work out such an interim resolution, that will take a lot of political heat off the administration in this town.
GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, thank you all very much.