China Is Not an Enemy and Shouldn't Be Provoked

William Pfaff
International Herald Tribune

PARIS The Hainan Incident was waiting to happen. It was statistically foreseeable, given the number of years that airborne electronic surveillance of China has gone on, that a plane would go down. Aircraft have gone down elsewhere, making trouble whenever they did. One needs to ask how long it has been since Washington has made a cost-benefit analysis of this provocative practice.

It is a permanent affront to China. One can imagine the uproar in the United States if Chinese aircraft regularly patrolled just off U.S. territorial waters (or in waters of disputed sovereignty) to intercept U.S. government and commercial communications.

Imagine if the European Union were to establish permanent intelligence facilities in Cuba, Mexico or Quebec - or on ships off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts - to intercept U.S. communications. Washington would consider that a most unfriendly action.

However, the United States continues to maintain its Cold War Echelon system interception stations at bases it controls in Germany and Britain, despite protests in the European Parliament. It pays a mounting political price for this.

The U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic intelligence aircraft damaged Sunday in a collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet was supposedly checking on Chinese missile deployments in the area near Yangang, on the mainland facing Taiwan. There has been a history of harassment of these American flights by China's air force. But the collision actually took place over the South China Sea, a region that is also risky because China makes disputed claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands, where there have been clashes with Philippine and Vietnamese fishermen and naval units.

China has asserted an ambiguous and, until now, unenforced claim to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea area. However, the United States itself enforces a 200 mile (320 kilometer) air intercept zone around the United States, far beyond territorial waters.

It is reasonable to ask if these communications intercepts are worth the political price they are costing. Do they possibly go on because of the administrative and bureaucratic momentum of the Cold War, or because of the heady sense in Washington that the sole superpower has to know everything going on everywhere? Is this intelligence actually used for serious purposes?

My own experience of the intelligence world would suggest that the apparatus of national intelligence is a perpetual-motion machine, often disconnected from utility. I remember seeing the daily volumes of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service intercepts, made by the National Security Agency and its predecessors, and widely dissimulated to the policy community and specialized press.

There was a certain morbid fascination in reading them, as they told what national radio stations everywhere in the world were saying about everything, and they did contain illuminating, if not particularly relevant, information. They were very good, for example, at revealing what interested the U.S. intelligence community.

Only the people who are in charge of foreign relations and intelligence for the new Bush administration can say whether the risks in current methods for electronic monitoring of China's communications are justified by the importance of what is learned. Notwithstanding the influence of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz axis in the White House and Defense Department, China still is, officially, a peaceful competitor of the United States - not an enemy.

One cannot object to gathering relevant intelligence on serious matters of national interest. But in parts of the U.S. security apparatus today, the hegemony machine may be running on its own momentum. Its claim that the downed aircraft remains U.S. sovereign territory is nonsense in international law, since its mission was spying.

As the purpose of this apparatus, from its creation, was to wage conflicts, cold or otherwise, its inherent tendency is to generate conflict even where there is no need for it. Conflict justifies its own existence.

China today approaches an important and possibly traumatic transition as the generation of leaders and the current structures of Chinese Communist rule are replaced. Whether this transition is successfully negotiated will be extremely important to China's neighbors and to the international community.

The forces even now affecting the outcome include the struggle between would-be political liberalizers and conservatives who insist on perpetuating centralized power, and a conflict of interest between the People's Army - the most important organized force in the country - and civilian authority. The transition may not be peaceful. The Communist Party is ideologically exhausted, and not entirely in control of a vast country, which continues to experience social and economic upheaval. Events may culminate in political upheaval.

The United States really does not need to make this country an enemy. But some of the actions going on under the authority of the Bush administration suggest that the country is going in that direction - and doing so with distressing insouciance.