Imagine this: A Chinese airplane is spying on the United States. In a routine flight, it flies just off the coast of Hawaii, using its sophisticated electronic surveillance capabilities to gather intelligence. Since it is a dangerous world, the Chinese want to know what plans our military is making that might affect them. Naturally, our government is somewhat uncomfortable knowing that we are being spied on like this. Why, we wonder, are the Chinese spying on us? What are their intentions?
US planes regularly intercept Chinese reconnaissance planes, approaching within a safe distance. However, this time, one fighter pilot gets a little overzealous. There is a slight collision. Our plane goes down in the sea. Our pilot is lost at sea. The Chinese plane is damaged and makes an emergency landing on the island of Maui. There are 24 Chinese soldiers aboard the aircraft. They are taken into custody by our military. We also take possession of the Chinese aircraft.
Our government isn’t too happy about this situation. Opinions are expressed such as: “The Chinese have a lot of audacity coming so close to our territory and spying on us.” Another opinion is: “It’s a damn shame that we lost one of our pilots in an action that never would have happened if the Chinese hadn’t been over here spying on us.” There is a lot of righteous indignation being expressed by top US officials about the Chinese bringing this on themselves by their own arrogance in seeking to spy on us in this manner. Still another opinion expressed is: “They landed on our territory, so we’ll just take our time and examine their plane to see what we can learn about their spying techniques.”
As soon as the Chinese government learns that its airplane has landed on US territory, the Chinese president sends a message to the US president demanding to see its soldiers and to have its airplane back without any tampering with it. We interpret this as an even greater expression of arrogance on the part of the Chinese, and we respond with silence. In the meantime, we hold the Chinese soldiers in reasonably comfortable detention. We also take advantage of the presence of their aircraft to give it a thorough going over. Since this takes time, we remain silent to the Chinese demands. We decide to just let them cool their heels for awhile. When we do respond to the Chinese, we tell them that we want an apology for their spying on us and for the loss of our fighter pilot.
The Chinese president, who is relatively new to his job and not too experienced in dealing with people from other countries, responds that he will not apologize. He doesn’t believe that there is anything for which to apologize. He also believes that he will lose face before his people if he does apologize. He thinks an apology will be taken as a sign of weakness. Instead of apologizing, he repeats his demands for the immediate return of the Chinese soldiers and aircraft – and he adds a new demand, that the Americans should stop their spying activities. We can only wonder why the Chinese president refuses to apologize for something that is so clearly poor judgment on the part of the Chinese. His refusal to apologize appears to be additional poor judgment on his part.
The Chinese president believes he has every right to have his soldiers returned immediately and he takes great offense that the Americans are dragging their feet on returning the aircraft. He dismisses the concerns that we have raised over their spying on us. “Everyone spies,” he thinks. “You spy. We spy. So what is the big deal?” But he also knows deeper down that China bears some responsibility, and that their soldiers and airplane are in US custody. The Chinese president contemplates what threats he can bring to bear on the Americans to get his soldiers and aircraft returned. He is determined to appear strong and not to compromise.
We Americans, though, are not too worried about any bluster coming from this novice Chinese leader. We know that he does not have a high level of support among the Chinese people. Perhaps showing the Chinese people that he is not as powerful as he might appear to be is not such a bad strategy for us.
Of course, our position appears sensible. And the Chinese position is arrogant and unapologetic. The next thing we can expect are stronger threats coming from the Chinese leadership, in an effort to assume the moral high ground, even though it was their action that initiated this string of events.
When our government has discovered everything it wants to know about the Chinese aircraft, we’ll give them back their plane and soldiers. But a reasonable guess is that we will have made an enemy of the Chinese leader.
It is a dangerous world. Incidents like this can arise without warning at any time. Without restraint on all sides, such incidents can escalate to war. We should never forget that a Chinese leader or any leader armed with nuclear weapons poses a terrible danger not only to us but to the entire world.
*David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.