Reprinted from the Washington Post, April 13, 2001

In the United States today, Americans are celebrating the return of the aircrew from China. President Bush is being widely praised for his deft handling of the hostage crisis. In China today, the government-run media are celebrating a great "victory" over the American superpower. Chinese leaders are being praised for extracting an apology from the United States for its aggressive invasion of Chinese territory. Who is right to celebrate? Comforting as it would be to believe otherwise, the Chinese see more clearly than we do that -- so far -- they have won and we have lost.

First, make no mistake: The United States has apologized. And the fact of our apology is all the more humiliating because the United States was in no way to blame for the incident. An American surveillance plane flying in international airspace was bumped by a Chinese fighter and forced to make an emergency landing in Chinese territory.

The Chinese pilot, some say, was "reckless." Maybe so. But the pilot was only carrying out his government's specific orders to recklessly harass American aircraft flying over the South China Sea, which Beijing wants to claim as Chinese territory and from which the Chinese military wants the United States excluded. For months the Chinese have been directing their pilots to fly closer to American surveillance planes. And for months they have ignored repeated U.S. warnings about the dangers of this new, aggressive policy.

And so the collision was not, as American officials insist, a "tragic" accident for which no one was to blame. It was the direct consequence of a deliberate Chinese policy to increase the risks to American pilots and crew -- and to their own -- in order to achieve a military objective.

Confronted by this direct and deliberate challenge, the United States has apologized. We have not only expressed regret and sorrow for the loss of the Chinese pilot and plane. We have publicly declared that we are "very sorry" for violating Chinese airspace by landing our crippled plane in Chinese territory. And let us not forgot why we apologized. The letter that our ambassador delivered to the Chinese government this week was not the product of high diplomacy. It was not the product of Sino-American "cooperation" -- a welcome harbinger of future "crisis management" between the two powers. It was the product of Chinese extortion. They held our troops hostage until we said, "Uncle." When we finally said something that in Chinese sounds a lot like "uncle," they let them go.

We can kid ourselves all we want, but we have suffered a blow to our prestige and reputation, a loss that will reverberate throughout the world if we do not begin immediately to repair the damage. The problem is not merely that we have lost face -- though the Chinese are right to believe that great powers should place a high value on their reputation. The bigger problem is that our reliability as defender of the peace and protector of friends and allies, especially in East Asia, has been thrown into doubt. If we do not have the will to stand up to the Chinese when they hold 24 Americans for 10 days, who can believe we will stand up to China when it threatens Taiwan and dares us to risk thousands more troops to defend that democratic ally?

Nor should anyone doubt that Saddam Hussein has studied this whole affair intently to see how the United States responds when faced with this kind of bullying. So far the lesson is all too clear: When you bully the United States, the United States searches for a way to apologize.

Fortunately, the hostage crisis just ended was only Act One in the Sino-American confrontation. Act Two begins now. As Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer and others have said, China must now pay a price for its appalling and bellicose behavior. The point is not to exact vengeance. The point is not to seek confrontation for its own sake. The point is to make clear to the Chinese government that this kind of muscle-flexing and flagrant violation of international norms cannot be tolerated, and will not be rewarded or excused.

Right now the United States can take steps to ensure that China understands how counterproductive its actions have been. First, we can resume our surveillance flights in the South China Sea immediately, without any deviation from the routes and methods used before the crisis. Then, in two weeks, the Bush administration should agree to the sale of a robust package of weapons to Taiwan, including a commitment to sell Taiwan the Aegis system. We should do this not only to send a message to China. We have an obligation to give the Taiwanese democracy what it needs to defend itself against an increasingly threatening Chinese military posture. But the Chinese also need to know that their efforts to drive us away from Taiwan are futile. That is the best way to ensure peace in the Taiwan Strait.

The administration can also move to bolster our force structure in the Asian theater, use its influence to block Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics and vigorously push in Geneva for a U.N. condemnation of China's miserable human rights record. Congress can do its part by voting against a renewal of China's most-favored-nation status later this year.

Would all these measures set U.S. policy on a fundamentally different course? Yes. Those who believe the Sino-American relationship can return to "normal" now that the hostages have been released are engaging in self-delusion. If we simply try to put the crisis behind us and return to "normal," as so many China hands, foreign policy "realists," corporate executives and our secretary of state have suggested, the message to the Chinese leaders will be that they will pay no price for an assault on American interests and honor. No message could be more dangerous or more dishonorable.