The Pentagon, reports the BBC, has protested to the Chinese government, which responded by claiming that the Kitty Hawk incident was the result of a “misunderstanding.” The FT suggests that the two incidents could jeopardize ties between the two navies, which have matured in recent years. Remember earlier this year when Admiral Timothy Keating, the new commander of US Pacific Command, suggested that the US might help China develop aircraft carriers?
There are two separate but not mutually exclusive theories floating around to explain these incidents. Some suggest that Beijing is retaliating for the Dalai Lama’s receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. Others talk darkly of the PLA’s being beyond the control of the Communist Party (an argument I considered here).
If it’s the former, there’s nothing to worry about — the issue will have passed, and Sino-US relations will continue to be as positive as the People’s Daily says in an article about a meeting between President Bush and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. Meanwhile, even if this incident is part of a pattern along with the ASAT test and reports of Chinese cyber raids on the Pentagon, that still should not preclude a deepening of defense ties between the US and China.
The US has no choice but to deal with China. A PLA unaccountable to any authority, while worrisome, does not change this fact. Indeed, the greater the independence enjoyed by the PLA, the greater the need for regularized interaction between the military officers and government officials not just from the US and China, but from the other countries in the region. Scaling back or cutting security ties with China and its military will simply make the PLA more hostile and less cooperative, reaffirming the impression surely common in certain circles within the PLA that the US and its allies seek to encircle China.
Yes, China’s behavior is maddening and hard to understand. But the US, as the maintainer of stability and order in the region, has the duty to ignore the slight and focus on the task of coaxing China into acting as a pillar of order, not an unpredictable actor and potential menace. Clearly, the signals from China are mixed — interesting that this incident has unfolded just as a PLAN destroyer arrives in Japan for a historic visit. Decisions made by the US and its allies still have the ability to affect the direction of China’s emergence for better or worse.
Here’s hoping that cooler heads within the US Navy and the defense establishment prevail, despite those inside and outside the government who look for incidents like this to confirm their worst fears about China (like, say, Lou Dobbs, as mentioned by Tom Barnett).
Perhaps it’s time for that Organization for Security and Cooperation in Asia.