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About "Dangerous Straits"
An introduction to the FRONTLINE documentary

Historical context in which to learn about U.S.-China relations, an overview of the key issues between the two countries, and information on the recent strains in the United States' relationship with China

Lesson Plan
  • Activity 1: Policy Recommendations
  • Activity 2: Researching the Practice of Diplomacy
  • Activity 3: Debating the Issues

  • Resources
    Where to go, on the Web and in the library, for more information

    Short descriptions of the key terms and historical figures

    Goals for Lesson

    Students should:

    • Appreciate the complexities of international diplomacy and policy analysis and their importance for effective management of complex international relationships
    • Understand why the "spy-plane" incident could not be rapidly resolved by American and Chinese policymakers
    • Recognize the "spy-plane" incident as an indication of the increasingly challenging nature of the long-term relationship between the U.S. and China.

    Key Questions

    What problems in U.S.-China relations were brought to light by the "spy-plane" incident? How would you rate their respective importance, and how well do you think the problems were resolved?

    Connections to National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Thematic Standards:

    II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    III. People, Places, and Environments
    IX. Global Connections


    Group A: Prepare a class briefing for your congressional representative on what you have learned from this incident and the policies you would recommend to improve or stabilize U.S.-China relations.

    Group B: Prepare a similar briefing for China's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of U.S. Relations. Groups should discuss their main recommendations and note differences in perspective.

    Rationale: Many scholars in think tanks both in China and the U.S. spend their time researching problems such as the "spy-plane" incident and forwarding recommendations to responsible government agencies or legislators on how to interpret and manage them. These researchers generally have considerable knowledge of U.S.-China relations and read each others' published articles and Web sites. This activity is asking you to step into this role and develop advice for government officials about how to manage such problems, taking a variety of perspectives into account.


    • Be sure to think about domestic political factors.

      American research team: Find out what your congressional representative's views on China have been, and what constituencies he or she has with agendas affecting U.S.-China relations. For example, if Boeing or General Electric have a factory in your district, it is probably trying to sell planes or turbines in China and has an interest in getting support from your representative for a quick, tidy solution to the incident. If you live in a community with a strong labor constituency, its representatives may have negative views about Chinese labor practices. (Note: For information about your elected officials, visit Project Vote Smart.

      China research team: Figure out how the Chinese military is going to look at this incident. What are they likely to demand as the price of supporting a political resolution of the crisis? What are the overall priorities of the government leadership? Why did the Chinese side demand a formal apology? How can they keep trade flowing with the U.S., while factoring in national pride in China's air force and public anger at American penetration of what China considers to be its offshore airspace? What arguments does the leadership need to meet American demands for the return of its crew and plane and persuade American negotiators to compromise? What terms would you recommend for the release of the American flyers and the plane? How should the government deal with American reconnaissance planes in the future? (For information, check the Web sites listed in the resource guide.)

    • Look for people in your district who have come from China or who have lived in China and interview them. There is always a broad range of perspectives on important issues. You should try to get at least three different points of view and make an assessment of their relative merit in terms of recommendations to improve U.S.-China relations.
    • Read commentary from journals and newspapers such as The New York Times, The Far Eastern Economic Review, The South China Morning Post, and the China Daily. What are their editorial writers recommending, and to what extent do you agree with their views?

    • Chinese research team: Read such commentaries from the perspective of Chinese public opinion, especially China Daily articles, as if you are Chinese citizens, not American.

    • Prepare a succinct paper of not more than two pages in length. (Anything longer is likely to go on the bottom of the administrator or legislator's pile or into the circular file!) Compare notes and see what gaps exist in your joint recommendations that the diplomats will have to find a way to resolve.


    Prepare a presentation or a paper on what you have learned about the practice of diplomacy from your study of this crisis.

    Rationale: Diplomats have to deal with the practical consequences of incidents such as the "spy-plane" incident and come up with solutions that all sides can accept. We live in an increasingly international age, and this means there are all kinds of agencies out there with agendas, e.g. military, commercial, religious, as well as legitimate and illegal transnational networks. This puts a premium on the skills of diplomacy: understanding the language; being able to accord authority and respect to a person consistent with their age, experience, and position; the importance of precedent; and compromise.

    If you've been following international events, you know how difficult it can be for diplomats to find solutions to conflicts when there are so many other interests at variance with those of diplomacy. Put yourself in diplomatic shoes and see how well you can do, or decide how well the American and Chinese diplomats made out. What long-term goals did diplomats on both sides hold on to as they worked to resolve the immediate problems caused by this incident?


    • Understand the constituencies. As soon as an incident of this kind occurs, various constituencies are quickly drawn into the fray. The military gets involved, as do intelligence agencies. Pressure groups start agitating. Political leaders feel obliged to make statements and demands to satisfy domestic opinion. Note: Chinese public opinion became angered by what it saw as an American intrusion on its sovereignty and the loss of its plane and pilot. The pilot was transformed into a national hero. American public opinion became angered by the detention of its fliers after they had made an emergency landing on Hainan island. There was also the issue of what to do with the American plane.
    • Research articles on the Web sites in the resource section to see how diplomats responded to a fairly strident scenario on both sides. How well did the U.S. State Department handle the affair? With whom on both sides did they have to negotiate to reach acceptable solutions? What compromises did both sides make?
    • Use the incident to make some broad points about American and Chinese diplomatic priorities and the limits of diplomacy as a way of managing international incidents. What weaknesses did this incident reveal about American and Chinese negotiating positions and staffs? Which pressure groups on both sides seemed most influential, and on what power was their influence based? What steps have both governments taken since the incident to shore up the U.S.-China relationship? (Use The New York Times and other newspapers listed in the resource guide for answers. For example, with the appointment of a new American ambassador, what resources were brought to the relationship between the U.S. and China?) What lessons should both governments learn from this incident? What lessons should the Chinese and American publics (i.e., public opinion) draw from the incident? What do you see as the limits and potential of diplomacy in today's world?


    Prepare a radio talk show or public forum to discuss the incident and help the public understand its significance.

    Rationale: Good talk shows can spark conversation that helps illuminate incidents such as this one. Set up a talk-show format in the classroom. This activity will require all students to prepare in advance by reading up about the "spy-plane" incident and U.S.-China relations. The format will require a host who has read a few articles to get perspective on the incident. There should also be two experts, one on the history of U.S.-China relations who can bring some deep background to the table, and another who can focus on what has been happening to the relationship over the last few years. Then there should be several people "phoning in" or talking from a selected audience, prepared with questions that the host and the experts can discuss. The goal is to have articulate, informed conversation that can help people understand the issues and problems.


    • The host has to introduce the topic in three or four minutes and work up some good questions. For example, how important is the whole issue of Taiwan to the "spy-plane" incident? Why are we sending reconnaissance planes around the China coast? What kind of information are they looking for? Are they "spying" or are they collecting needed data in a legitimate way? Why does public opinion get so easily worked up when issues develop between China and the U.S.? Why are Americans and Chinese distrustful of each other? Why did Chinese government leaders play up this incident as much as they did? Why did the Bush administration appear to be caught by surprise?
    • The history expert should have some perspective on previous problems affecting U.S.-China relations: the role of Taiwan; the breakdown in U.S.-China relations from 1950-1972; significant improvements in the relationship since that time; and a sense of what each country and government basically expects of the other.
    • The political expert needs to know about major factors in current U.S.-China relations, for example: the importance of bilateral trade and investment; the importance of U.S.-China cooperation over Korean problems; and differences over strategic priorities, such as Chinese arms sales to Pakistan and American arms sales to Taiwan. He or she should also know about the influence of domestic politics on the debate. For example, how much influence does the Chinese military leadership exert over the political leadership, and how much does the Chinese leadership have to take into account the rising tide of nationalism in China. These issues are explored in articles in the news journals listed in the resource guide.
    • The questioners

      Student A has studied differences in the Chinese and American military forces, knows how much more advanced American military capability is, and wonders why American negotiators backed down as much as they did.

      Student B has studied in China; she has some young Chinese friends who see the U.S. as always bullying China and asks whether this problem really matters to Americans and, if not, why.

      Student C wants to know whether the American EP-3 plane was "spying" or "gathering intelligence"? Is it legitimate for U.S. planes to fly so close to the Chinese coast monitoring Chinese military activity? What if the Chinese sent planes to fly up and down the American West Coast? Would American planes buzz their planes?

      Student D is studying the huge trade and investment flows between the U.S. and China, and wonders why so much is being made of this incident. The fate of a couple of planes is hardly what matters in the overall relationship.

      Student E is angered by the detention of the American fliers, and thinks that Communist China is not a friend of the U.S.

      Student F has researched incidents in the Taiwan Strait, sees the plane-buzzing as deliberate Chinese government policy, and asks what the U.S. doing to let the Chinese know this is not acceptable.

      For all of the students, it would be good to develop one or two questions secretly, so that the experts haven't been able to prepare answers in advance.

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