Frame Game

Chinese Twins

Every time the United States negotiates with China, a war of words breaks out. On one side are Americans who demand a “principled” hard line against China’s aggression. On the other side are Americans who advocate “constructive engagement” to coax China toward economic and political freedom. In the spy plane standoff that ended this morning, the hawks and engagers were at each other’s throats again. But their enmity was, as always, dishonest. They need each other. Without the hawks, the engagers would have no sticks to wave at China. And without the engagers, the hawks would have no carrots to withdraw.

The latest charade began Friday, when the Weekly Standard editorial, co-authored by editor Bill Kristol, denounced “the profound national humiliation that President Bush has brought upon the United States” by expressing his regret at the death of a Chinese pilot in the spy plane incident. Calling advocates of engagement “appeasers,” the editorial assailed Bush’s “weakness,” “fear,” and “capitulation.” On the weekend talk shows, the engagers fired back. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell excoriated the Standard editorial. Cheney called it “one of the more disreputable commentaries I’ve seen in a long time” and warned that such rhetoric might “inflame” the U.S.-China standoff.

It’s true that Bush’s advisers didn’t enjoy being accused of weakness. And it’s true that they didn’t want to let emotions in both countries spin out of control. But that didn’t deter them from putting the Standard’s tirade to good use. In every TV interview, administration officials tried to scare China by playing up outrage on the right, in Congress, and among the American public. The message to Beijing was: If you don’t release our crew, you’ll empower the anti-China hard-liners we’ve been restraining.

The telling pattern in the comments of U.S. officials throughout the standoff was their indirection. Rather than criticize China, American politicians professed sad concern that other politicians and constituencies, furious at China’s behavior, might force the United States to retaliate. Administration officials warned of what Congress might do. Members of Congress warned of what their colleagues might do. Constructive engagers, alluding to polls, warned that their pragmatism might be overwhelmed by American nationalism. Powell’s hand-wringing performance on Face the Nation was worthy of an Oscar:

Congressional delegations are canceling their trips to China. … They’re also saying, “You know, Secretary Powell, you’ll have a much more difficult time with, say, getting another permanent normal trading relations bill through.” … When they do come back [from recess], if this has not been resolved … there will be action. There will be a great sense of outrage. … It’s affecting the environment that we will be facing when we take the [Taiwan arms] sale up on Capitol Hill, if there is a perception that China is not acting in a responsible and reasonable manner. So even though we’re keeping it separate, I can’t help but say to the Chinese that it could become linked in the overall political climate.

To what extent were Powell’s engagers and Kristol’s hawks sincere in their quarrel? Certainly less than they conveyed on the Sunday morning shows, which they knew the Chinese would watch closely. The day afterward, at an American Enterprise Institute forum, Kristol conceded that his editorial might help Powell and Cheney:

It strengthens them diplomatically, because now they can go to the Chinese government and say, “Hey, if you guys don’t come through with these people very, very soon, we have all these insane right-wingers out there frothing at the mouth, wanting to arm Taiwan and launch a trade war, and these guys represent millions of infuriated Americans who are about to take to the streets and call their congressmen.” Would that it were so. But if the Bush administration wants to say that in their private diplomacy with the Chinese government, that’s fine, too.

Former Defense Department official Richard Perle, who associated himself with Powell’s side of the debate, endorsed Kristol’s theory. “I like to think that the Chinese in Beijing, trying to figure out what we’re doing, have decided that the president … can’t hold Bill Kristol off much longer. And so maybe that will accelerate the process.” Kristol and Perle were joking about the Standard’s prestige. But they weren’t joking about using indignation on the American right to scare China.

If the engagers need the hawks in this way, it’s just as true that the hawks need the engagers. Look at the sanctions the hawks propose to apply to China. “It is essential that the Chinese be made to pay a price for their actions,” huffs the Standard. “The United States must respond in ways that directly affect China’s interests. Congress can do its part easily: by rejecting China’s most-favored-nation trade status when it comes up for renewal later this spring.” On the Today show, Kristol elaborated: “We have a huge amount of leverage over Beijing. They desperately want the president to go there in October. They desperately want to have the Olympics. They desperately want to continue with most favored nation status. … We have a host of relationships with them that can begin to be cut back.”

Yes, we do. But the only reason those relationships can be cut back is that we built them in the first place. If the Standard had gotten its way, there would be no MFN trade status to retract. If Bush had ruled out a trip to China and had committed the United States to oppose China’s bid for the Olympics, none of that “leverage” would exist. Yes, we could have told the Chinese that if they didn’t release our crew, they’d be even less likely to get a trade agreement or a presidential visit or the Olympics. But withholding a favor you’re already withholding doesn’t pack the same punch as taking back a favor that has been offered or has come to be expected.

To the hawks, Sino-American relations are about addiction. “The Chinese believe, with good reason, that the American business community has a hammerlock on American policy toward China, and that Congress will never dare cut off American business’s access to the Chinese market,” the Standard charged Friday. “Congress has a chance to prove that … the United States can break this addiction.” Five days later, the American crew is coming home, thanks to Chinese anxiety that the impasse might have jeopardized China’s blossoming economic and political relations with the United States. Addiction, it turns out, is a two-way street.