1. Fly Unmanned
Don't risk $80 million and 24 lives when you can avoid it
As the EP-3E crew members winged their way back from China, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent them a congratulatory message. "You put your lives at risk," he told them, "so that the citizens of a grateful nation can live their lives in peace and freedom." Which raises a key question: Is it really necessary, with all the Pentagon's technological wizardry, to dispatch repeatedly two dozen of America's youngest and finest into the teeth of the Chinese dragon?
A lot of intelligence work can be done without putting Americans in harm's way. The Pentagon has a constellation of spy satellites that can photograph and listen in to many sites of interest to U.S. spooks. U.S. submarines, safely lurking beneath the South China Sea and other seas bordering countries of interest to Washington, can suck in a plethora of communications and other militarily significant transmissions.
Most important, the U.S. military's growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs to the military, drones to everybody else—is increasing in sophistication and capability. Rumsfeld, conducting an exhaustive review of how the U.S. wages war, is convinced the time has come to rely more on cheap drones. Last year Congress—concerned over the American public's skittishness about U.S. casualties—told the Pentagon it wants one-third of U.S. bombing missions flown by unmanned warplanes by 2010.
The Pentagon took a key step toward unmanned aerial warfare in February, when a $3 million Predator drone that was initially designed for spying was able to destroy a tank by aiming and firing a Hellfire missile with help from its ground-based controller.
The drone's benefits are obvious: without people aboard, costs can be slashed because expensive life-support systems such as oxygen supplies, ejection seats, fire-suppression systems and armor aren't needed. The nimbleness and speed of today's fighters aren't limited by weak engines or fuselage stress limits but by the human body's inability to withstand high G-forces, a problem that would disappear in a pilotless plane.
The U.S., however, is in no mood right now to back away from manned flights along the Chinese coast. Such a move would be seen in Beijing as a victory for the hard-liners there who wanted to hang on to the EP-3E's 24-member crew.
Moreover, any drone capable of replicating the EP-3E mission is far down the road. After all, the Air Force only now is building Global Hawk drones at $50 million a pop to replace the venerable U-2 spy planes. The new drones, capable of loitering high over hostile terrain for more than a day, should be flying real-world missions by 2010—a full half-century after the Soviet Union shot down Francis Gary Powers' U-2.
2.Watch China's Wall
Tempting as it is to think hard-liners have been phased out, they still matter. A lot
President Jiang Zemin learned that hard-line generals who live by the sword might lie for the sword. Although nobody has revealed just what he knew and when, U.S. officials surmise that China's leader read military reports saying exactly what the state-run media announced: that the pilot of the U.S. spy plane had "rammed" the Chinese fighter, then "invaded" Chinese airspace. So, naturally, Jiang demanded an end to surveillance flights and an apology. Talks stalled immediately. Frustrated U.S. diplomats involved in the negotiations concluded it was "very possible" that the military presented Jiang "a set of facts at odds with what really happened."
Once the generals had Jiang's ear, though, they bent it hard. It's significant that after keeping mum for two days, Jiang opened with a demand to end surveillance flights; only a day later did he call for an apology. "Ending spy flights is what the military wants, so Jiang demanded it first," explains a former editor for the Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily.
But it was an unwinnable point. The U.S. had no intention of stopping the flights. Jiang had maneuvered onto strategic ground that was impossible to hold. The U.S. drove the lesson home by offering a limited and lawyerly apology that forced Jiang into a humiliating retreat. China's military did find a way to milk the event for some national credit, most notably when Defense Minister Chi Haotian met Wang Wei's widow and demanded that the U.S. not "shirk responsibility."
The bum steer by its military was also a reminder that China needs better coordination. Last year Beijing established a body similar to the National Security Council to ensure that information gets shared. But in its first test, the new body failed Jiang. "Maybe now the government will speed up this arrangement," says a foreign policy adviser in Beijing.
Jiang's task now is to declare victory, over and over. In the coming weeks, party cells will meet to discuss "how Jiang forced the U.S. to its knees," says a member. But Jiang remains vulnerable. These days, he's trying to show his statesmanship by dissuading Washington from selling Aegis-equipped destroyers to Taiwan. If the radar deal goes through, the generals will be outraged. To his chagrin, Jiang's final grade on this crisis may ultimately be up to the U.S.
3.Reel In the Old Line
Just because it sounds good on the campaign trail doesn't mean it works
When it comes to China, presidential candidates love to talk tough. Once they get into office, though, the talk often tempers. Bill Clinton said he would never "coddle dictators" as his predecessor had, but he wound up embracing Beijing as a "strategic partner." On the stump, George W. Bush suggested that Clinton was too soft on China, but last week it was Bush who was lightening his position. By the end of the 11-day standoff, some of the President's early swagger was gone; in its place was a letter saying the U.S. was "very sorry." Has Bush changed his mind about China?
White House insiders say he merely did what needed to be done to secure the release of the 24 crew members. That's how it is with diplomacy: something is always getting in the way. With the Americans freed, Bush's inclination to slap back at their jailers will still be checked by the $116 billion in annual trade between the two countries. "It in some sense confirms that this is a complicated relationship, a very complex relationship," admits a senior White House adviser. Bush's sterner remarks regarding China in the Rose Garden last Thursday—after the crew had been released—are closer to his true feelings about that country. But in his speech, he clearly exempted the use of trade as a weapon of retaliation. That's a disappointment to one audience the remarks were supposed to mollify: conservative Republican anti-China hard-liners, who had been publicly silent for the most part during the crisis but who were threatening to grow more vocal. Bush has still other options. Among them: canceling a planned visit to China in October, or trying to block Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. And though some anti-China folks in the White House were eagerly chatting up plans for a revenge move last week, it is likely that Bush will conclude that retaliation is not worth the damage it might do to what may be the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
4.Watch the Kids
China's teens and 20s show signs of incipient—and threatening—nationalism
Communism is dead. Hence many of China's top leaders have been hunting for a new national idea to justify the continued existence of the party. Economic modernization continues to be a viable theme. But the spy-plane incident pointed up another seductive ideology: nationalism. At first glance, it seems a neat trick—to substitute loyalty to the government with loyalty to the state. But as Beijing's leaders were reminded last week, nationalism is tough to control.
That hasn't stopped the party from at least toying with the patriotic on/off switch. You could see the process playing out in real time on the Internet, where the nation's censors worked overtime to sharpen the anti-American fervor by erasing pro-U.S. Web postings. The website of the People's Daily, the nation's largest paper, employed nine monitors, who sifted through 20,000 postings a day to make sure sentiment agreed with the party line.
No wonder that the Chinese public was puzzled and outraged when the Americans were released. Beijing banned the kind of protests that had convulsed the capital two years ago after a U.S. bomber hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict. But students wanted revenge, or at least a trial for the U.S. soldiers. The propaganda machine tried its best, touting the U.S.'s "very sorry" pledge. Internet censors worked around the clock again, this time erasing messages that criticized Jiang for capitulating to Washington. But the fervor remained.
Americans who once thought they could count on the enlightenment of McDonald's-eating Chinese youth may find this faith misplaced. Youngsters under the age of 25 are those most eager for China to show its muscle. "We will learn all the things you Americans teach us," says Qian Fei, a 22-year-old sitting at a Beijing sports bar and watching Chinese basketballer Wang Zhizhi's debut in the NBA. "And then we will use what we learned to beat you."