Imagine this: A Chinese airplane is spying on the United States. It flies just off the coast of Hawai’i, listening to military communications. 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?
We send up one of our fighter planes from a nearby airbase to take a closer look at the Chinese spy plane. Our fighter pilot gets a little overzealous and flies too close to the Chinese plane. 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 U.S. officials about the Chinese bringing this on themselves through 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 U.S. territory, the Chinese president sends a message to the U.S. president demanding to see its soldiers and to have its airplane back without any tampering with it. We interpret this as even greater 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 a while. 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 think 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, and he is too insecure to be willing to appear to be weak. Instead of apologizing, he repeats his demands for the immediate return of their 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.
For 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 about 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 has blundered, and that their soldiers and airplane are in U.S. custody. The Chinese president contemplates what threats he can bring to bear on the Americans to get his soldiers and aircraft returned. Compromise is not in his vocabulary.
We Americans, though, are not too worried about any bluster coming from this novice Chinese leader. We know that he was not elected by his people, and does not enjoy a high level of support among them. 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. It wouldn’t be so bad if the Chinese people began thinking more for themselves and having less faith in leaders who are not democratically elected.
Of course, our position seems sensible. It always does. And the Chinese position is, as usual, arrogant and self-righteous. They won’t even apologize. The next thing we can expect is wild threats coming from the Chinese leadership. They’ll probably threaten anything in order to appear strong, even though they got caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar.
When we’ve discovered everything we want to know about their aircraft, we’ll give them their plane and soldiers back. But my guess is that we will have made an enemy of the Chinese leader and that he is the kind of person who will hold a grudge and find a way to get even sooner or later. We should never forget, though, that a man like that, armed with nuclear weapons, could be a terrible danger not only to us but also to the entire world.
David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.