In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election of 2000, the Republican Party’s candidate, George W. Bush, appeared to veer sharply away from the traditional U.S. policy of “constructive engagement” with China. Instead, an open confrontational attitude seemed to be the new approach; an approach that specifically identified the PRC as a “strategic competitor” of the United States.
Coming on the heels of China’s angry reaction to the Belgrade embassy bombing, Bush’s approach towards China appeared to augur poorly for the future tranquility of U.S.-China relations. The first few months of the Bush administration indeed witnessed a visible escalation of Sino-American tension.
Escalation of Sino-American Tension
In mid-February of 2001, President Bush indicated that the U.S. government would sponsor a UN resolution condemning China’s record on human rights. A few days later, Mr. Bush authorized an American airstrike on Chinese-installed fiber-optic cables in Iraq, with the express intention of “sending the Chinese a message”.
Then, on April 2, a Chinese F-8 jet fighter-interceptor collided in mid-air with an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed when his plane crashed into the sea, while the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Its 24-man American crew was taken captive.
As a condition of the crew’s release, China initially demanded an acknowledgment of U.S. responsibility for the collision, along with a full apology and a large financial indemnity.
President Bush rejected the Chinese conditions out of hand and demanded the “prompt and safe return” of the crew members. A standoff ensued, which ended only after Secretary of State, Colin Powell, expressed American “regret” over the incident, while pointedly refusing to apologize.
A few weeks later, the Pentagon proposed a hefty, $4 billion package of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which included eight diesel submarines, ground-to-air missiles, and four destroyers with missile-defense capability. This was followed, in turn, by the president’s controversial pledge, issued on April 25, to do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack from the Chinese mainland.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Response by China’s Media
In China, these developments were viewed with growing anger and alarm. Especially in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident, China’s hostility toward the United States seemed boundless. An official People’s Daily editorial captured the mood of deepening Chinese anger:
We would like to remind the U.S. government: Your gangster logic of hegemonism won’t work with the Chinese people. You shouldn’t be so arrogant on the basis of your might. You should know China’s present position in the world has been gained through struggle, hard work, and the efforts of the Chinese people. …Arrogance and haughtiness only court others’ resentment and are…harmful to the international image of the United States.
Learn more about Taiwan’s transition to democracy.
Reaction of Chinese People
If the official media were dripping with righteous indignation, participants in China’s Internet forums were in the grip of an even more intense frenzy of hyper-nationalism. Ironically, much of this emotional nationalism was directed against the Chinese government itself, for its evident timidity in releasing the captive American airplane crew without receiving either a full-blown U.S. apology or substantial monetary compensation.
Here is a very small sampling of the type of Internet commentary that flooded China’s most popular interactive media website after the release of the EP-3’s American crew:
[From “Blood-colored China”:] I am sad for our country. I am ashamed of our government. Will it take another bloody war to arouse the Chinese nation?[From “Gracious”:] My web comrades, how can we face the martyrs who have fought these past several hundred years for national self-respect and the strengthening of the country? How can we face our ancestors? I feel so ashamed today.[From “Lin Zi”:] My life belongs to my country. I cannot bear to allow her to be shamed. I hope that our glorious party will not be weak again. We have our self-respect to maintain. Do not make the people distrust you, my Motherland! We need to wake you up!
In these fragments of highly-charged Internet chatter, we see clear evidence of a late 20th-century reawakening of China’s 19th-century national victimization syndrome. Fortunately for all concerned, neither the Chinese nor the American government was eager to let such “trash talk” get further out of hand, and both sides soon began using more restrained and measured language.
Learn more about the rise of Chinese nationalism.
Sino-American Relations on Conciliatory Path
In May of 2001, an administration official acknowledged that the president had misspoken when he pledged to do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan. Two months later, in July, Secretary of State Colin Powell disavowed the Bush administration’s previous characterization of the U.S.-China relationship as one of “strategic competition”.
For his part, China’s president Jiang Zemin acknowledged that the EP-3 collision had been an unfortunate accident.
By mid-summer, Sino-American relations had moved back onto a more conciliatory path. And when Al Qaeda launched its devastating attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Beijing and Washington quickly closed ranks, affirming their mutual desire to combat global terrorism and to preserve their long-standing relationship of “constructive engagement”.
Common Questions about America’s Confrontational Approach Toward China
Under President Bush’s administration, America’s confrontational approach became clear. America now viewed China as a “strategic competitor”, veering sharply away from the traditional U.S. policy of “constructive engagement” with China.
In April 2001, a Chinese F-8 jet fighter-interceptor collided in mid-air with an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed when his plane crashed into the sea, while the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Its 24-man American crew was taken captive.
When Al Qaeda launched its devastating attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Beijing and Washington quickly closed ranks, affirming their mutual desire to combat global terrorism and to preserve their long-standing relationship of “constructive engagement”.