The Bush Administration failed its first foreign policy test. If the US government had reacted to China's detention of an American plane and crew by imposing costs on China, subsequent arguments would have been over what China had to do to avoid worse. But because the Bush team let the crisis turn on how deeply America would bow to avoid China's displeasure, China logically held out to see how much it could extract. The make up exams are sure to be harder.
All international disputes pose a primordial question: Which side will be the "demandeur," the one who asks the favor, and which side will exact a price for granting it. If both are equally competent, the side on the short end of the balance of power is forced to ask and pay. Accordingly, in this case, China should have been scrambling to avoid America's displeasure. Instead, the US government's deficit of competence canceled out a surplus of power.
China's rulers have much to fear from America, while America has little if anything to fear from China.
America could easily pose mortal threats to China's rulers. Their claim to legitimacy rests in part on pretending to restore grandeur by absorbing Taiwan. What would happen to these rulers if the US made clear that this will never happen, and that attempting conquest would wreck China? We could convey China's impotence, by announcing the sale of AEGIS ships to Taiwan as well as its integration into a US missile defense system. The next shoe to drop might be a declaration that the US would support the Taiwanese people's democratic decisions about their future. Could America ever side against a people's free choice for freedom? And if Secretary Powell wanted to get rough, he could dust off the speech by his predecessor, John Foster Dulles, that triggered the settlement of the 1958 Taiwan straits crisis: Dulles reminded Mao of his vulnerability by branding China's government as illegitimate, against the interests of the Chinese people, and expressing America's confidence that it would be replaced. Long before we got to that point, the Chinese would be debating which gifts to send along with the returning crew.
Since China's rulers also base their claim to legitimacy on the promise of economic betterment, and this in turn depends almost entirely on America's maintenance of an $83 billion trade imbalance, America has enormous economic leverage. Neither Protectionist Europe nor Japan is an alternative to the American market. The rest of the world could not pay. What would China's rulers think if a Republican President were to announce sympathy for the US labor movement's position on trade with China? What would their own people do to them if access to the US market was actually curtailed or conditioned?
Few things would worry the Chinese rulers more than American diplomatic support for Japan's inherent rivalry with China. They know that Japan has the national unity, the technical proficiency, and the ferocity that their empire lacks. China's foremost foreign policy goal has been to use America to tranquilize Japan. Almost as important has been its objective of lifting America's military protection of Japan enough to cause Japan to feel the need to propitiate China, but not enough to alarm Japan. Which Chinese leader would risk being held responsible for inciting America to help revive Japan's historic interests in China?
Over and above all this is the fact that America can do just about anything it wants militarily against China, while any Chinese military action overseas opposed by the US 7th Fleet would only demonstrate impotence.
The list of China's capacities to impose costs on America is short. China can sell missiles and nuclear technology to America's rogue state enemies. But it has been doing so to the best of its ability despite commitments to the contrary. If it ceased brokering relations between the US and North Korea, or imposed economic sanctions against the US, it would hurt itself. If it were to keep American captives, or otherwise confront America, it would reduce the influence of its friends, paid and otherwise, throughout the world.
For China's foreign policy, then, the Bush Administration's sufferance of the detention of an American crew is a far reaching triumph. Chinese diplomats will remind Asian governments that the Bush team ransomed its airmen by an admission of responsibility everyone knows to be false (patrol planes can't run down fighters) simply because it did not have it in itself to do anything else. True or not, they will say that Bush also made secret concessions at the expense of Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, etc. Think of this, they will say, when we ask you for something and you think of asking America to back up your demurral.
For America, Bush sowed trouble. In the weeks leading up to the incident, Comedy Central was advertising a new sitcom called "That's my Bush" with a picture of John F. Kennedy in the Oval office bearing the caption: "Since George W. Bush took office, we've yet to encounter any awkward Cuban refugee incidents." Alas, the similarities turned out to be greater than the differences: As the Kennedy Administration flunked its first test by having to ransom the men it had sent in harm's way at the Bay of Pigs, and "managed" its way out of the subsequent Cuban missile crisis by making secret concessions at the expense of NATO allies the Bush administration flunked its first one by ransoming the men and women it had sent into harm's way near China.