An Englishwoman in Washington

The spy plane in China: why Bush turned an accident into an international incident.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

At the time of his election, US president George W Bush promised to adopt a more modest foreign policy than his predecessor Bill Clinton. But from his inauguration on, President Bush has found it hard to stay away from foreign affairs.

Look at the foreign policy initiatives that have preoccupied the new administration since January 2001. First Bush authorised a special bombing raid over Iraq. Then he unveiled his plans to reinstate the National Missile Defence programme. More recently, the new president presided over the expulsion of more than 50 Russian ‘spies’ from US soil. And as things hotted up in Macedonia, Bush dispatched his secretary of state General Colin Powell to the Balkans, to promise greater US involvement in the region.

Just as it appeared that the president was ready to settle down and focus on domestic matters, on 1 April a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The forced landing of the plane in China, and the subsequent delayed release of the 24 US crew members by the Chinese authorities, meant that yet again foreign matters dominated the political news.

The spy plane incident shows just how difficult it is for President Bush to keep his feet on US ground. Some claim that the new president’s attempts to focus on domestic issues have been thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. But while nobody could have predicted this particular spy plane incident, President Bush is not simply a hapless victim of external events.

For all Bush’s self-proclaimed modesty in foreign affairs, US troops and intelligence personnel have remained engaged and active across the globe since his election. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Times (London), the USA currently has 250,000 troops stationed overseas (1).

And the administration’s recent actions demonstrate that Bush himself did much to turn the spy plane accident into a major international incident. Secretary of state Colin Powell’s first reaction was to insist that the USA had nothing to apologise for. Bush raised the stakes further when he insisted that the damaged aircraft had some kind of diplomatic immunity from Chinese interference – as though it had the status of a US embassy.

Next came the military threats. US warships sailed towards the region while rumours circulated Washington that, in future, all spy planes would be escorted with armed fighter protection. To cap it all, US senators and congressmen added their weight to the threats by calling for a vote in favour of arming the Taiwanese Navy with state-of-the-art radar technology.

Why was it so hard for Bush and his allies to maintain a low profile on the spy plane incident? In today’s political climate, no politician likes to miss out on an opportunity to appear self-righteous to the voters at home. In the USA, being belligerent about foreign atrocities, whether they are committed by Serbia, Saddam Hussein or China, is a tried and tested way of gaining gravitas and stature in the USA.

But the problem for Bush in this particular instance is that not all foreign powers are equally obliging when it comes to playing the role of the president’s whipping boy. China is no Serbia or Iraq – it is a major economy with which the USA is very keen to do business. The Bush administration’s inability to sit on its hands during this episode had the potential to do a lot of damage to US- Chinese trade relations.

So at the same time as the White House was busy issuing military threats and admonishments against the Chinese, US diplomats were desperately trying to work out some kind of face-saving deal that would restore US-Chinese relations to some kind of normalcy.

The resulting deal has left many in the USA confused and puzzled. After hearing statement after statement that the USA would not apologise for the incident, suddenly we heard that the airmen were going to be released because the USA had issued a letter that, while not officially apologising, included the words ‘very sorry’ not once, but twice. And despite the fact that the president had made the return of the US aircrew his personal crusade for 11 days, when the boys finally stepped off the plane on to US soil the president was suddenly unavailable to greet them.

The result is that, far from looking resolute and gaining stature, this whole attempt to use the international stage as a way to walk tall at home may have backfired on the new president. Many people think that Bush somehow backed out of a fight, even though that fight was in many ways one of his own making. Of course, the administration has explained away events by saying that it demonstrates just how modest the Bush administration really is when it comes to foreign affairs – but it is unclear whether the public is really convinced.

Browbeating the Chinese at the same time as trying to do business with them is a tricky tightrope for any administration to walk. The Bush team seemed to have ended up with the worst possible result from the affair – pissing off the Chinese, while risking being called weak and wavering back home.

(1) The Times (London), 18 April 2001

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Topics Politics


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