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Understanding China and U.S. Crisis Behavior

the Washington Quarterly, Winter 2007-08


There have been two accidental crises between China and the United States in the last decade: the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 and the mid-air collision of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter plane in April 2001. Such crises not only seriously strained and damaged bilateral ties in the short term, but also created a negative long-term impact on their relations.

In the future, accidental crises may arise from time to time between China and the United States. As China's military modernization speeds up and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy extends its area of influence, the United States has been enhancing its surveillance and monitoring of Chinese military activities, and some accidents between the two militaries are almost inevitable. Examining the most prominent dimensions of the embassy bombing and the mid-air collision, drawing lessons from both, and contrasting the Chinese and U.S. characteristics of crisis behavior can help both sides to deal with future crises better and maintain a stable and productive bilateral relationship.