Beneath diplomatic tempests stirred up by the May 7 aerial bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade lurks petroleum.
The errant attack, said to result from faulty U.S. intelligence, killed three Chinese nationals, and triggered demonstrations in Beijing that left the U.S. embassy there battered by thrown objects and had diplomats on the scene worried about physical takeover. U.S. officials blamed the mistake on an obsolete map. The Chinese embassy moved into the location mistargeted as a Serbian military headquarters in 1996.
A dreadful accidentThe blunder was so enormous and so devastating in its human and diplomatic consequences that it had to be an accident, however dreadful. U.S. intelligence has plenty of quarrels with China, including the recently disclosed and very damaging theft of nuclear secrets by Chinese agents. But that would not justify military retaliation, for which there would be no public support in the U.S.
Furthermore, a plot to deliberately bomb Chinese territory in Belgrade and call it an accident would be self-defeating. The Central Intelligence Agency has committed enough costly mistakes in recent years to raise serious questions about its competence. It hardly needed another blot on its record. Now that it has one, Congress must find out why U.S. intelligence so often gets things so wrong.
Accident, however, had no place in Chinese propaganda about the bombing. The official news agency Xinhua reported that military officials interpreted the attack as a deliberate extension of a coordinated U.S. policy to expand its military influence in Asia at China's expense. The Chinese government clearly orchestrated the anti-U.S. demonstrations in Beijing and joined Russia in calling for an end to the aerial war by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Yugoslavia.
Obviously, Beijing plans to squeeze a wretched situation for as much political leverage as it can. The demonstrations and accompanying rhetoric were revealing in this regard. How, the Chinese asked, can the U.S. complain about China's human rights record then bomb innocent Chinese in Belgrade? Demonstrators carried placards comparing U.S. President Bill Clinton with Adolph Hitler.
Where dictators control information, large numbers of people can be made to believe such rubbish. Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many Chinese demonstrators have any way to know that the Hitler analogy applies most fittingly to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose abominations against Albanians in Kosovo precipitated NATO's attacks.
The petroleum dimension in all this looms as China's imminent role as a major importer of oil. A study released last month by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University noted that China will have to go to the market for 2-3.5 million b/d of oil by 2010. It thus will move into the oil-trade big leagues. Lately it has imported only 500,000-700,000 b/d.
What's more, 1-2.5 million b/d will have to come from producers other than the Persian Gulf heavyweights, oil from which is too heavy and sour for Chinese refineries. In some combination, China must find large and varied new sources of crude, petroleum products, or money with which to upgrade refineries.
Adjusting diplomacyWhatever the strategy, says the Baker Institute study, China will have to get serious about energy security and adjust its diplomacy to new dependence upon others for energy trade and transportation defense. Against this backdrop, the snarling, propagandizing China of recent days does not make an appealing image.
With China always come the elaborate rules of face against which non-Chinese, by Chinese scoring, inevitably come up short. For the sake of future energy trade and mutual economic benefit, someone should now smile and with due respect for Chinese sensitivity explain to Beijing what the non-Chinese-Americans, at any rate-mean when they say, "Get real."
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