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Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Chinese puzzle -- I KNOW it's a major international incident.

I know it involves both the world's remaining superpower and its most populous country.

I know Americans are being held hostage.

I know a Chinese pilot and his jet fighter are reported lost.

I know, in short, that this is (ital)serious(unital).

And yet I can't help thinking how ridiculous this chain of events is:

The world's most advanced military power assembles the very latest electronic detection equipment and sends it aloft in a lumbering prop-job with a crew of 24. An increasingly assertive Communist power dispatches its own advanced jet fighter. And somehow, in all the expanse of the South China Sea, they run into each other.

Of course. Whatever can go wrong, will. Never doubt man's capacity for folly.

And now the political and diplomatic games have begun: A dictatorial regime facing all kinds of internal dissent sees its chance to unite public opinion behind it by rousing nationalist fervor against American imperialism. Gosh, it's just like the old days -- when we were dealing with another evil empire.

It's all so familiar. Also, menacing. And still ridiculous. Beijing accuses the big, slow American aircraft of having attacked its swift jet fighter. You need a completely controlled press to expect that story to be taken seriously, which is what Beijing has. But it's hard to believe that all those Chinese on the Internet can be taking their government's version seriously. Even if they don't dare laugh.

Meanwhile, a treasure of American electronic surveillance equipment, or what's left of it, sits on the tarmac of a Chinese airbase. Also in the regime's hands are 24 American hostages. Instead of returning the crew, Red China now demands an apology. For what? Its poor pilot's recklessness?

How should Washington respond? It's clear what this country should not do: offer an apology, which would only whet Beijing's appetite for more appeasement, moral and material.

Of course this country regrets what happened. Of course we wish our plane and its crew had quietly completed their mission. But apologies are not in order -- not from Washington, anyway. It wasn't some American cowboy who decided to buzz a foreign aircraft. But there's no need to go into detail.

The administration has made its point as it should have -- simply and without undue histrionics: The disabled American craft and its crew should be returned in conformity with international norms. And then we can move on.

There should be no endless debating and negotiating. That much Washington should have learned from the Carter years, when Iran's ayatollah was allowed to hold not just Americans but America hostage for what seemed forever.

Instead, without saying so out loud, the word needs to be leaked that Beijing's attempt to ransom these captives will harm its own interests. Both its military and economic interests. Not only will its rival Taiwan be sure to get the advanced weaponry that island redoubt needs to defend itself, but the arms will flow quickly and in abundance.

Washington is due to decide on Taiwan's arms requests anytime now, and if this incident grows into a crisis, there will be no reason to refuse Taiwan anything on its shopping list.

The president of the United States (and commander-in-chief of its armed forces) has an array of other levers he can use to get Beijing's attention, notably his power over American trade with the Chinese mainland.

The tariffs on Chinese imports that have been lowered over the past decade can be raised. The United States may be mainland China's best customer. And while the customer isn't always right, the customer is always powerful. It isn't necessary to do anything to make that point. All we need do is just stop importing all this crap.

A nation that holds American hostages should not be among those most favored with our trade. Even if that disappoints the corporate types who make up the new China Lobby.

The unsteady regime on the mainland is already facing economic and political strains as it tries to open markets without relaxing its hold on its subjects. No one should have to tell Beijing that losing its biggest customer would hurt. But it may need a tactful reminder. There is no need to shout, just to act.

We are about to hear a great deal of learned hokum abut the cultural gap that separates America and China, but this isn't a conflict between East and West. It's between a free country and a tottering totalitarian society. The roots of this dispute are political, not cultural. We have no quarrel with the real Republic of China on Taiwan, only with a People's Republic on the mainland that is neither. Patiently but firmly, it can be contained till it crumbles. We've done this before.

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