The date: 1989.
Only this time, the positions were reversed. We held their aircraft -- several F-8 fighters, to be precise -- and the Chinese government wanted them back.
But the F-8s weren't here as the result of an accident. They were here as part of a deal brokered by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to strengthen China's ability to fight the Soviet Union by fitting their fighters with advanced radar.
Then came the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Beijing's ruthless suppression of these calls for freedom convinced the first Bush administration that China had to be punished. And so, we stopped military trade and locked up their jets.
It took the Chinese five years to get their planes back, and when they did, we charged them for the storage.
That's why U.S. officials who still hope to get our EP-3 surveillance plane back in short order shouldn't hold their breath. The negotiations promise to be slow and tortured, and while we may not wind up paying "reparations," don't be surprised if we're asked to pay landing and storage fees for an aircraft that most likely will be returned in pieces. That's how the game is played.
Besides, the loss of the EP-3 isn't something to worry about. It's an old, propeller-driven plane of limited value in today's military. As long as the crew destroyed any material of a sensitive, confidential nature, China didn't get the crown jewels.
Of much greater importance is how we respond to China in the wake of this incident. It's vital, for example, that we continue our routine reconnaissance flights over the waters of East Asia. Besides helping us collect information that ensures our security interests in that region, these flights show that the United States and other nations have unrestricted access to international waters and the airspace above them. If we were to scale them back as part of some "goodwill" gesture, the flights would become more provocative and more dangerous.
Not as dangerous, of course, as China has been making it for Taiwan. Beijing wants to smother that democratic state. President Bush made exactly the right decision on his recent arms sale package to Taiwan: He ruled against selling it Aegis-class destroyers now but kept them as a future option. Meanwhile, he'll transfer a range of weapons that will greatly beef up its defensive capabilities, including four destroyers, a dozen anti-submarine planes and up to eight diesel-powered subs.
Our response shouldn't be restricted to defense measures, however. China's wanton disregard for the rule of law raises serious questions about its suitability for membership in the World Trade Organization and its permanent normal trade status with the United States. After all, if China cannot abide by international law, companies that wish to trade with it can't be sure their contracts will be honored or their disputes settled fairly. And if Beijing's belligerence continues, Americans should vote with their pocketbooks and buy products made in other countries.
With regard to trade, we must make security a higher priority than it was under the Clinton administration. U.S. officials must enforce strict controls on exports from American companies whose technology could benefit the Chinese military.
In addition, the United States shouldn't support holding the 2008 Olympics in China unless we start seeing significant improvements in the human rights arena -- not promises, but progress. It wouldn't hurt to remind Beijing that rights for American TV money dwarf all other sources of income for the Olympic movement.
And considering Beijing's harsh treatment of those it deems a threat, the Bush administration was right to warn U.S. citizens to think twice about traveling to China. Examples abound: Its arrest last August of three Taiwan-born members of a Christian evangelical group from San Jose, Calif., its kidnapping of an American University professor and her family, its harassment of the Falun Gong meditation group. The list goes on.
In short, China must be shown that the United States will respond to threats with firmness. Americans can be pushed only so far. Chinese officials have insisted on apologies after their fighter pilot endangered the lives of our crewmen. They've arrested and harassed U.S. citizens and permanent American residents of Chinese descent. They've escalated their threats against Taiwan and sold arms to rogue states such as Iran. Enough is enough.
Larry Wortzel is the director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). A former director of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, he was serving as Assistant Army Attaché in China at the time of the Tiananmen Massacre.
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Wire