Washington George W. Bush's early run-in with China over U.S. reconnaissance flights is more silver lining than cloud. Beijing's continuing haggling over right and wrong, and over truth and fiction, is more deeply revealing than a thousand policy memoranda or interagency meetings would be for the new president.
International law, and indisputable facts, matter little when they conflict with Beijing's version of history and the Communist Party's hold on power. China's behavior since the Hainan emergency landing strikes at the heart of the elaborate Clintonite fantasy that this is a government pretty much like any other, with rough edges that can be smoothed over with patience and diplomatic wooing.
This is a government that permits school children to blow themselves up making fireworks for export, and then lies to the nation about the children's fate. Any government that will do that will certainly lie about an airborne disaster it helped create.
Dangerously, President Jiang Zemin's government seems capable of lying to itself. The Chinese military has provided the civilian leadership with a false account of pilot Wang Wei's daredevil flying. U.S. evidence that China's pilot caused the accident was brushed away in two meetings in Beijing last week.
This is not aberrant or situational behavior by China. The recently published "Tiananmen Papers" establish in great detail how military and party leaders used false information to promote the 1989 massacre of peaceful demonstrators. A direct line connects Tiananmen and Hainan.
With the 24 American fliers finally freed, the Bush team has used the incident's aftermath to insist on a truthful accounting of the accident, and to emphasize U.S. determination to respect international law in continuing its flights over international waters. China relies instead on its unilateral determination of coastal limits to demand peremptorily a halt to the espionage flights.
The U.S. steps establish that Washington wrote its letter of regret about the accident under duress and wipe away any taint that letter initially left.
Bush should continue to take the high road that China's flight into denial has helped him seize. U.S. actions toward China now should not be punitive in nature, however justified American anger would be. They should be based in principle, and clearly explained that way.
Washington should not oppose Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics because of the Hainan incident. Bush should announce that the United States will henceforth oppose the holding of international gatherings in any country that does not respect the rule of law and political openness. (Awarding the 2008 Olympics to democratic South Africa instead of China would help underscore the point.)
An impending decision on arms sales to Taiwan should be framed similarly. The United States has legal and moral obligations to help this island democracy defend itself, however dire the consequences Beijing threatens.
Holding open the possibility of selling Taiwan an Aegis radar system in the near future if direct Chinese threats worsen is probably more effective than making the sale now. Including air-launched AMRAAM missiles and other defensive gear in this year's sale would be more militarily and politically effective in any case.
The principle that the United States should take actions it had substantial reason to take before the April 1 mid-air collision applies to trade as well. Washington should continue to press for immediate Chinese admission to the World Trade Organization. Getting China to accept and live up to new international obligations and regulations is in the U.S. interest.
What cannot go forward after Hainan is U.S. support for Chinese ambitions to play a greater international role based on a recent record of "responsibility" and respect for international law.
Bill Clinton and his aides played up consultations with China by agreeing to "P-5" meetings of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to deal with global problems.
Beijing loved these meetings for the status they conveyed, and because the talk there usually centered on punishing India for daring to become a member of the nuclear club. Any temptation the Bush team may have felt to repeat this exercise should have gone down on Hainan along with the EP-3E spy plane.
This incident should also settle an embryonic debate within the Bush administration, where some policy heavyweights have argued for a U.S. foreign policy based solely on American interests, not American values. This would supposedly reverse Clinonite mushiness.
China helps remind us that this is a false choice. A great power's values are part and parcel of its interests. Pursuing interests without regard to values is exactly where Beijing's doomed dictatorship has gone wrong.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.