TOKYO–NATO says it will rain tens of thousands of rockets, bombs and shells on Serbia if
are needed to win the Kosovo war. But none of those deadly munitions is likely to have greater
strategic consequence than the misguided missile that destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade
The air-launched U.S. rocket blasted a final gaping hole in the shaky foundation of the
partnership” that President Clinton has sought to construct with China’s Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s
refusal to take a call from an apologetic Clinton over their symbolic “hot line” underlines the
fragility of that overly personalized attempt to reconcile two historical and political adversaries.
Paradoxically, the diplomatic damage from the attack could yet be turned to useful purpose. It
should force the badly needed rexamination of U.S.-Chinese relations that Clinton has resisted at
every turn. A new, more realistic basis for a sustainable (if necessarily wary) cooperation now can
And the attack should remind all of the world’s major powers, including China and Russia,
dangerous this war has become to their own interests. It should spur them to work seriously to
end Serbia’s systematic massacre of an ethnic nation. This would allow NATO to stop its
The initial fallout of the mistaken U.S. targeting is admittedly all cloud and no lining. There is
way to gloss over the personal tragedy this regrettable attack inflicted on the Chinese unfortunate
enough to have been in the embassy, and on their families and friends.
But the general Chinese reaction to that loss needs to be carefully analyzed. It comes in two
separate if related parts: genuine anger and sorrow over the bombing, and careful, cynical
orchestration of those emotions by an aging Communist leadership fearful of losing power.
Americans should not underestimate either reaction.
Both emotion and calculation are glimpsed in the shocking images of Beijing students burning
American flag and boisterously hurling bricks through U.S. Embassy windows as Chinese police
There should be no surprise at the genuine emotion sparked by the killing of Chinese citizens
U.S. arms, or even at the refusal of many Chinese to believe U.S. explanations of how the
China has felt humiliated and abused by militarily superior colonial powers for most of this
century. Pride in the country’s economic rise in this decade and the return of Hong Kong have
mitigated China’s deep historical sense of victimization by outside powers, but they have not
Moreover, China’s last serious, costly war — against U.S.-led forces in Korea — ended
clear resolution or cathartic vindication for either side. One of the mistakes of those U.S. officials
who have rushed to proclaim a strategic partnership with China has been to ignore the residue of
that experience for both sides.
American relations with Japan and Germany today illustrate how quickly wartime foes can
reconcile and become partners when the political values and interests of former foes become
genuinely compatible. There is no immutable hostility in international relations.
But in the case of China and the United States, the same political systems and types of
that directed the Korean War are still in place. On the Chinese side, some of the military men who
fought the war in Korea are still prominent in government.
China and the United States shared temporary, limited strategic interests during the Cold War.
Both faced a general Soviet threat. But today neither interests nor values bind Beijing and
Washington together in a relationship strong enough to withstand the shocks of the discovery of
wholesale Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear secrets, the mistargeted missile in Belgrade or even the
tensions that China’s widespread human rights abuses of its own citizens produce.
For all the impressive economic liberalization it has promoted, the Chinese leadership remains
totalitarian in outlook and practice. Truth, whether about what is happening in Kosovo or what
happened in Tiananmen Square a decade ago, must be controlled and organized to be useful for
the party or it is withheld or distorted. Clinton’s repeated apologies for the Belgrade error were
not relayed to the Chinese people for nearly a week because they did not fit Jiang’s purposes.
U.S.-Sino relations cloaked in an illusory “strategic partnership” are hostage to
mishap and manipulation of the kind provoked by the Belgrade embassy bombing. Better for each
side to look soberly at the true nature of the relationship and to manage it as a difficult and
basically adversarial one, in which principles and respect are more important than flattery.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for the Washington Post.