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April 11, 2001


     Never pass up an opportunity to teach.

     These days, you couldn't slice through the tension in U.S.-Chinese relations with a well-sharpened Ginsu steak knife.
     The whole mess started when a couple of dozen fly boys from U.S. Naval Air collided with some sky jockey from the People's Republic (actually, on the advice of legal counsel, I'd like to back up and reverse that---we are, after all, still in the midst of a spat over who did what to whom). While the body of the Chinese Army pilot, Wang Wei, involved in the mid-air fender-bender hasn't been recovered, the 24 servicemen and women aboard the U.S. surveillance plane landed a couple of billion dollars worth of the world's most sophisticated airborne snooping equipment on the Chinese island of Hainan. They are currently being "detained" by the PRC military.
     Thus far, the Chinese government is refusing to release the Americans until U.S. President George W. Bush issues a "full apology" for the incident. For the Americans, an apology could open up a Pandora's Box of legal issues, including an edict from the international community to stop playing the spook along the PRC coastline.
     Although Bush came forth with a public announcement of "regret" for the collision, he's so far refrained from talking the next step of accepting culpability. The two sides are currently weighing their options and desperately searching for that elusive "exit strategy."
     In the vernacular of international relations theory, what we got here is a highfalutin game of "Chicken."
     That's right, political scientists who study the good and bad ways states behave toward one another sometimes model those interactions as a 'game,' then these policy gurus feed voodoo numbers into some HAL9000 supercomputer in the basement of a dusty Ivy League think-tank to determine what will happen. And yes, they do view it in terms of winners and losers, although most 'games' that include actual or implied conflict frequently result in snake-eyes all around.
     Using games with catchy names like "Prisoner's Dilemma," "Stag Hunt," and of course, "Chicken," wizards of global politics attempt to unlock the secrets of how and why we go to war, and what the hell we can do to stop it. The game of chicken should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a rerun of that James Dean classic, "Rebel Without a Cause." The film, an homage to Fifties teen angst and alienation, features a scene where Dean, the new kid in school who's broodingly sexy but still just doesn't quite fit in, takes on his leather-clad rival in love and homeroom in a game of chicken. (By the way, if your son takes a shine to firearms and is constantly complaining about those "butt-wipes" at school, it might be best not to let him stay up for this one, least another American schoolyard gets turned into the O.K. Corral).
     The Hollywood version has Dean and some doomed, clumsy chucklehead getting into a couple of junkers at the far end of a straight-away that dead-ends into a swan dive over a cliff and into the jagged rocks below. Both burn rubber, high-tailing it to their dates with destiny. The first person sane enough to bale is, unfortunately, branded a "chicken"---the ultimate insult to '50s machismo. You might remember, Dean takes the tumbleweed route, while the other guy's jacket gets stuck in the door, plummeting him over the edge while the gang waits anxiously, fondue sticks at the ready, to roast marshmallows at a greaser barbecue. "These are such happy days!"
     But political scientists put their own spin on the game. In the version used for nations engaged in that esoteric debate over what happens when the immovable object meets the irresistible force, our game-show contestants are traveling head-on. The first person to swerve loses "face" and gets that taunting finger from the international community waved in his kisser. And, that is pretty much what's at stake here for the Chinese and the Americans. If the Chinese release the U.S. fliers without an apology, the world will think they've knuckled under. If the Americans make an act of contrition, then they have to wear the jacket with the yellow stripe down the back.
     Much to the world's collective chagrin, the game doesn't exactly stop there. Oh, we take allowances for a "deadlock," when both parties choose to remain in a limbo of escalating rhetoric. Oftentimes, eleventh-hour diplomatic solutions are reached in which both parties give a little (usually via backroom deals) and each goes home with a few welts and bruises on their respective images. But at other times, like some high-stakes poker game, the players just keep upping the ante. This is about when we start getting into the realm of the "conflict spiral" when increasingly aggressive steps taken by both sides lead to a cycle of retaliation and possibly war.
     If there is a U.S.-China conflict spiral, the next step should be some kind of retaliatory measure from the Americans, possibly mucking up China's impending entry into the WTO, monkey-wrenching U.S.-Chinese trade relations, or sealing the fate of billions of dollars of advanced military technology, currently being warehoused, but already stamped with a "Destination: Taipei" sticker. What the Chinese might do next to raise the bid is anybody's guess. Naval exercises in the Straits of Taiwan, forcing the American pilots to make guest appearances on Chinese television dressed in cowboy hats and rodeo buckles, or taking the five-finger discount on some more U.S. nuclear secrets; the Chinese have at least a few options.
     The question you might be asking---especially if you're a Westerner---is: Who really is the guilty party? As least part of the pay-off calculus in the U.S.-China game of chicken is being ciphered on the basis of who, ultimately, was responsible for the actual crash. Chinese officials, including the other pilot bird-dogging the U.S. plane, claim that two Chinese fighters were in close pursuit of the Americans when the "spy" plane suddenly veered in Mr. Wang's jetfighter, disabling the craft. Wang parachuted, but he has yet to be found.
     For their part, Washington's spin-doctors have been releasing stories about previous sky encounters between U.S. intelligence and those maverick cloud-skippers from the Middle Kingdom. A few of the Navy boys who've done this milk run a time or two say they remembered the hotdog antics of Wang and other Chinese pilots. It seems Wang liked to do reverse barrel rolls around the Americans while flipping them the middle finger and screaming, "You are fat and lazy." The latest point scored in Uncle Sam's favor is an admission by the U.S. Navy that the plane was on auto-pilot at the time of the collision and couldn't possibly have veered into the jetfighter---although I certainly hope the Navy's auto-pilot works better than the cruise control in my Caddy back in the States.
     To me, the issue of responsibility (aside from the whole legal morass of military surveillance flights) seems to boil down to simple laws of physics. That reconnaisance slow-rider from American intelligence had about the same likelihood of running into a Chinese fighter as a Boeing 747 has of flying into me. The jet travels at, what... maybe something like more than twice the speed of sound, while the U.S. EP 3-E Aries II surveillance plane couldn't do sixty going downhill. It reminds me of that scene in the first "Austin Powers" movie where Mike Myers and Liz Hurley barrel down on a villainous security guard---only the dynamic duo is driving one of those pavement spreaders, the ones with the giant front cylindrical wheel and a top land speed of a coma victim. The guard stands there screaming for about 30 seconds while the vehicle of his demise creeps along like an octogenarian in a busted walker. The joke is that the guard need only take one small step in either direction to avoid the collision. You see, he can easily outrun the "International Man of Mystery" on a mechanical turtle.
     Which brings me to my point, if the Chinese fighter plane is so much faster than the U.S. spy plane, why couldn't it just get out of the way? Isn't the rule of the wild blue yonder that he who has the speed takes responsibility for the deed, or something to that effect? Now you may be asking what about car wrecks. You say, "Can't an Edsel T-bone a Lamborgini?" Well, the thing is cars travel on bascially a two-dimensional surface. If the lines intersect at the same time... SMASH! But up in the atmosphere aircraft get to travel in three dimensions, giving them a few more options when changing lanes. Now add to that the fact that I'm pretty sure PRC jets have radar, and the Chinese position becomes a real puzzle for Newton. Frankly, I think that if you've got the coconuts (and that includes you girls) to tie yourself down to a lighting-quick, highly-explosive liquid-fuel missile, then you damn sure better have the cat-like reflexes to dodge the aerospace equivalent of a bike with training wheels and all the pep of a Fourth-of-July sparkler.
     The larger issues for the Asian superpower 'challenger' and the current reigning superpower 'champion' involve definitions of "international air space," the unequal aerial espionage relationship between the United States and Mainland China, and other Northeast Asian security issues---especially Taiwan. The Americans believe they were flying the friendly skies made open by international treaty. The Chinese view American flights in the South China Sea for the purpose of strategic voyeurism as a breach of their airspace. The PRC takes the high road on the issue of spying from the heavens (although there are some lingering questions about their integrity in U.S. nuclear labs here on the ground) by arguing that the United States wouldn't stand for commie spy planes negotiating the smog-filled skies of the Greater Los Angeles area.
     Then there's Taiwan, which is a big part of why these two heavyweights revved the engines for a game of chicken in the first place. A large part of the Americans' interest in eyeballing China's coast is to keep tabs on the more sophisticated chess game the Chinese are playing with respect to Taiwan. Taiwan is the scepter's stone in the staff of the Body Politic of the old Chinese Empire. First Hong Kong, then Macau, and finally Formosa complete the set. There are still some disputes over who owns the continental shelf in the South China Sea, and some outstanding issues over much smaller islands, but when the "One China policy" becomes an anachronism, the country will be about as close to the territorial heights of those dynastic epochs as its likely to get.
     Getting back ancient lands is only one item on the agenda for the modern Communist emperors of China. The long-term goal is to retain some of the glory of those bygone days when China was the unchallenged bare-knuckle champion of Asia. The Chinese see the path to that former position of power and prestige as going through the Americans---currently the dominant force in the Asia-Pacific region. The relationship between these two vastly different countries, with their dichotomous historical experiences---one a giant of then, the other of now---has soured noticeably in the last year. My old man used to say that if you put two cocks in a pit there's bound to be some pecking. Games of chicken that invariably end badly usually are capped with both sides eating a healthy portion of crow. But you can count me out of that mono-et-mono, chest-thumping, duel-in-the-sun crap. No chicken for me, thanks. I'd rather stick with the vegetarian. 

by James Strohmaier