What if…? The never-ending question foreign policy practitioners here in Washington love to ask. And it seems like these days we have many reasons to be asking it, given the sheer amount of anniversaries we’ve been looking back on just in the last few months, not to mention the momentous events in our own time. Some examples: What if the Soviet Union never fell? What if Japan never attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor? What if Donald Trump had lost the 2016 election? The list can go for miles without end.
But there is one what-if that has been stuck in my craw for the last few weeks: What if President George W. Bush had much tougher in his response during the EP-3 Crisis of 2001? What if he had listened to other voices who were whispering into his ear — people like Donald Rumsfeld, for example, who were pushing for a tougher line on Beijing?
In light of what can only be charitably described as Chinese adventurism in the East and South China Seas, and renewed pressure on Taiwan in recent years, it is worth exploring if a tough stand early enough during the period of China’s so-called “peaceful rise” would have made any difference.
On April 1, 2001, a US EP-3 surveillance plane cruising 70 miles off the coast of China was carrying out what Washington considered to be routine intelligence gathering. However, China had made it well known it considered such flights, in what is international airspace, anything but routine — rather, it viewed them as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, a stance held by Beijing to this day. Forty-four flights had already been intercepted that year, but this time things would turn tragic.
While both sides finger the other as the guilty party, most in the US intelligence and defense communities argue that a Chinese pilot simply ventured too close in his intercept and flew into one of the EP-3’s propellers. Tragically, the Chinese plane crashed into the sea, costing the pilot his life. The American surveillance aircraft, badly damaged, had to make an emergency landing. The only place that could conceivably work: Hainan Island…in China.
The Initial Response:
It seems the first instinct for Bush — and I would argue it would have been the correct one — was to take a stand against such an aggressive intercept. Of course, China has the right to follow American intelligence aircraft in international airspace; however, it has no legal grounds to expect Washington to avoid areas around China. Even during the Cold War, Soviet intelligence operations by land and sea would get as close as international law allowed to the United States.
As Bush explained in a statement:
“…We have been in contact with the Chinese government about this incident since Saturday night. From our own information, we know that the United States naval plane landed safely. Our embassy in Beijing has been told by the Chinese government that all 24 crew members are safe.
Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew, and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering. The first step should be immediate access by our embassy personnel to our crew members. I am troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to our request for this access.
Our embassy officials are on the ground and prepared to visit the crew and aircraft as soon as the Chinese government allows them to do so. And I call on the Chinese government to grant this access promptly.
Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice, and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations…”
Unfortunately, Bush would not hold to what seemed, at least, like an initial tough stance. He authorized his foreign policy team, specifically Secretary of State Colin Powell, to find a compromise solution. The end result is what is rather oddly referred to as “the letter of two sorries”. A strongly worded and almost disorganized statement of remorse, the letter attempted to express regret over the death of the Chinese pilot and the EP-3 entering Chinese airspace without clearance. China did not have to reciprocate any sadness or remorse over the incident and offered no such letter in return to America.
Even after Washington offered its apology, Beijing still wanted more. The Bush Administration would have to wait months to get the plane back, and when it was returned it was completely disassembled — no doubt taken apart and mined for any and all secrets Beijing could lift from it. America even had to pay to have it shipped back. Additionally, Washington agreed to also pay for the food and lodgings of the airmen: US$34,000 in total.
What Could Have Been Done Differently?
To be fair to the Bush Administration, there are no easy choices in such a tragedy. Pushing too far could risk making China an enemy and undoing years of hard work at bettering political as well as soon-to-be critical economic ties.
Still, it is worth exploring what could have been a very feasible option offered by then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. As he explained in his recent autobiography, he suggested a different approach: “When the President asked me what I thought, I said I did not favor an apology or suspending our reconnaissance flights. The Chinese knew they were in the wrong. Capitulating to their threats and feigned outrage could embolden China’s military and political leaders to commit still more provocative acts. I did not believe that America would benefit from being seen as a weak supplicant. Moreover, I thought that there should be some kind of clear penalty for China’s dangerous behavior.”
So what other options could Bush have considered?
He could have tied the release of the crew and plane to what — at the time — was a yearly mini-battle over the renewal of normal trade status for China. Simply stated: no plane, no crew, no normal trade.
Bush could have also pushed for a joint statement, with both parties expressing mutual regret, so that no one side lost face. But America’s apology, which Chinese media hailed as a victory, created an impression that Washington would back down in a crisis, that it was afraid of damaging ties, and it’s arguable that this set a dangerous precedent for the future. In fact, in the intervening years since the tragedy, many Chinese scholars and retired military officials have pinpointed the incident, stating clearly that America would not challenge Beijing in a crisis, especially as China’s power has increased over time. As one retired PLA officer told me just recently: “You backed down in 2001 when the stakes were quite high — when we had your airmen. We have every reason to believe you will do it again when times get tough.”
The Limiting Factor: The 9/11 Attacks:
Even if Bush had pushed for a harder line in responding to the crisis, there is one limiting factor making the utility of such a pushback against China short-lived: the events of 9/11. As Frank Ching explained several years ago in The Diplomat:
“…on the morning of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC.
From this perspective, bin Laden’s attack on the United States was a heaven-sent opportunity for China, one that was quickly grasped by Jiang. The Chinese leader immediately offered his sympathies and support to Bush, following up with a telephone call.
The US President quickly grasped the hand of friendship extended by China, marking a dramatic turning point in the US-China relationship. Indeed, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States radically altered the Bush administration’s entire world view.
With the United States already under attack, the Bush administration’s attention was no longer focused on China as the next enemy. Instead, it redirected its attention to radical Islam and al-Qaeda’s operations around the world. The fact is, it’s not going too far to say that China owes a huge debt of gratitude to Osama bin Laden…”
Sadly, in the final analysis, a tougher line would have done little to stop the one event that would turn America’s eye away from Asia for almost a decade. Still, one wonders what could have been if Bush had pushed back harder, and at least set a marker that a belligerent and defiant Beijing would not be treated as a “responsible stakeholder”. China would have had at least some reason to think twice, over the last several years, in its march to re-order the status-quo in Asia in its favor.
Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest.