IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Military crash stirs anti-U.S. anxiety

Chinese chat rooms are crowded with angry people, who think Beijing should take a much harder line against the United States following the collision of a Chinese warplane and an American spy plane over the South China Sea.’s Kari Huus reports.
Soldiers march towards Beijing's Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the closing ceremony of the annual Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference March 12.
Soldiers march towards Beijing's Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the closing ceremony of the annual Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference March 12.
/ Source:

Even 48 hours after the collision of a Chinese fighter and a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea, Beijing had said relatively little about this grave situation. Not so for its citizens — especially those in cyberspace. On popular Chinese bulletin boards such as, there were by Monday night hundreds of remarks heavy with exclamation points — and nearly all urged Beijing to retaliate or respond aggressively to the United States over the incident.

“If the American devils fly into our air space, shoot them down!” screams one comment. Another says the 24 U.S. crew members now in custody in Hainan should be “tried for war crimes.” Yet another berates Beijing for its so-far tame reaction: “Are we still a colony?!” the writer demanded to know.

While the views of the on-line crowd may be an imperfect reflection of the general population, there is no doubt that the incident struck a raw nerve in China. Even now, as China gains stature in many respects — especially economically — its people harbor a deep-seated insecurity about their country’s sovereignty.

The reasons can be traced to historical domination by foreign forces — Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation during World War II and at the turn of the century Western colonies that were carved out of Chinese territory — which have helped forge a national psyche of defensiveness.

China’s sensitivity is also rooted deeply in the politics of paranoia, fed by a leadership that needs to bolster its own power. Every school child knows of the “national humiliation” caused by Western powers when they forced Chinese ports open through “gunboat diplomacy” and forced the nation to its knees through aggressive marketing of opium. The restoration of pride and independence is the foundation upon which the ruling Communist party bases its legitimacy. It can’t afford to look weak.

From China's shores
There are also, to be sure, real strategic reasons that China insists on claims to places on the edges of its control — from Taiwan and the Spratly Islands to Tibet. The ultimate control of Taiwan, which China claims is a wayward territory that must be reunited with mainland China, for instance, would give China control of waters far into the Pacific Ocean, including sea lanes used to move military and cargo shipments between U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.

Beijing also believes that if Taiwan is not united with China, it eventually could turn against the mainland. In this scenario, an unfriendly Taiwan could provide a massive beachhead for hostile forces, read American. Stretching almost 250 miles north to south, Taiwan sits just across the straits from Fujian province, China’s most economically developed coastal region. Taiwan also controls the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, both little more than a stone’s throw from the mainland coast.

“If you’re a (People’s Liberation Army) general, standing looking across the ocean, Taiwan is transfixed in front of your nose,” said a military expert on Capitol Hill who asked not to be named. “If you’re a PLA general, it is your mission in life to advance the recovery of Taiwan.”

Furthermore, in Beijing, there is real irritation and anxiety over U.S. projection of power around the world, which Beijing fears is becoming increasingly “unipolar.”

U.S. intervention in Iraq reinforced China’s fears of U.S. advanced weaponry, and its foray into the Balkans added the display of political will to get involved in a dispute that Beijing defined as “internal” to Yugoslavia. To some Chinese analysts, that intervention bodes very badly for Taiwan and other potentially separatist regions on the mainland of China.

Moreover, there are the more obvious offenses committed on a regular schedule — that of U.S. spy planes which routinely collect information on China. “If I were a Chinese nationalist,” said June Teufel-Dreyer, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Miami, “I’d probably be asking what (the U.S.) is doing right there.”

The mixture of real and imagined fears can be potent, as proved by the aftermath of the U.S.-led NATO bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in May 1999. At lightning speed, Chinese people — and the state press — embraced the conspiracy theory, barely examining the notion that the strike on their Belgrade facility may well have been, as Washington said, an accident.

A combination of spontaneous anger and government orchestration launched protests and hundreds of people gathered at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and consulates elsewhere, which turned into violent mob incidents. The state-run media stoked the public’s indignation in maudlin, marathon tributes to the three Chinese victims of the bombing.

So far, the reaction to the military collision in the South China Sea has not gone as far. Chinese protests have been limited to Hong Kong, where there is greater freedom of speech. But few Chinese seem to doubt the official explanation blaming the American pilot entirely for the incident. And indeed, to many the episode fits into a general pattern of U.S. efforts to keep China from claiming its rightful territory and its rightful seat among powerful nations.

Waiting for Beijing's cue
In part, the public may be waiting for a stronger cue from Beijing, which has so far chosen its words carefully in response to the Hainan military crash. True, the foreign ministry spokesman has blamed the crash entirely on the United States.

Reports from the official press have played up the fact that the emergency landing of the U.S. spy plane was made in Chinese territory “without permission.” And for 24 hours Beijing did not respond to U.S. requests to visit the 24 American crewmen — an act that Washington considers a clear breach of diplomatic protocol.

Beijing finally said on Monday that it would allow U.S. officials to meet with the U.S. crew late Tuesday. And Beijing has not claimed that the incident took place in its airspace (though some of the media have) which would suggest a more aggressive stance pressing its claim on the area’s Spratly Islands — parts of which are also claimed by five of its neighbors.

Analysts say the mixed message and the delay suggests that top military and civilian leaders have not yet determined how they want to spin it.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin has invested a great deal in building a good relationship with the United States. And on that relationship hangs one of the world’s biggest trade relationships. Too strong a reaction could imperil Beijing’s impending entry to the World Trade Organization. It would certainly empower hard-liners in the United States, who are already deeply skeptical of those who paper over China’s day-to-day offenses and instead emphasize the long-term view of China as an evolving nation.

So President Jiang has an interest in controlling his country’s potent nationalism, which could backfire on him and his legacy. “My impression is that leadership is reluctant to play the nationalism card too strongly,” said Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a very risky strategy, and they may lose control of it ... It can become a runaway issue.”

But even allowing U.S. representatives to meet their crewmen doesn’t mean China has decided the issue. “I think they are trying to see how the U.S. responds, how the U.S. public responds and how the Chinese public responds, all keeping in view the power struggle going on for successor to Jiang,” says Drew Liu, an independent Washington-based scholar from China, who points out that Jiang is slated to step down next year.

“Nationalistic sentiment is a very hot button,” said Liu. “If they allow this to flare into a major political event in China, they will find it very hard to climb down. So the initial approach is quite cautious.”

But if the past is a guide, it’s the sort of event that could play into the hands of hard-liners in Beijing who benefit from, and cultivate, the anxiety of the nation — the military and hard-line propagandists. “There are many in Beijing who have felt for some time that Jiang Zemin should take a harder line against the United States,” said Teufel-Dreyer, the University of Miami scholar. “Now they have a couple of fresh martyrs … and 24 crew members. So why not make the most of it?”