The EP-3, Bananas, NTV and the Shape of Things to Come

David Tucker

April 1, 2001

With the crew of the EP-3 plane on its way home from China, it is worth thinking about what this episode might mean. Most commentary has focused on immediate issues, such as the effect of the incident on President Bush’s popularity or the likelihood that the Chinese would get to host the Olympic games. But the Chinese response to the incident points to some longer term consequences for the shape of the world in the twenty-first century. To see them, we need to keep some other things in mind, like bananas and NTV.

On the same day that President Bush announced that the crew would be coming home, the Trade Commissioner of the European Union announced that the Union and the United States had reached an agreement over the importation of bananas to Europe. The United States and the Union had been locked in a dispute over this issue for eight years. It was one of several ongoing trade disputes that have led the United States to impose sanctions on the Union. While it is good that this one has been resolved, that it existed and that others still do, points to an important change in the world over the last decade. The United States and Europe have become rivals.

Just ask Boeing. This flagship of American engineering and industrial might has been locked in a bitter battle with Europe’s Airbus Industries, which receives significant financial support from some of the largest members of the European Union. The recent announcement by Airbus that it would challenge Boeing’s previously untouchable lead in the largest size airliners was laced with the language of rivalry and war.

Some would say that this is just the sort of economic competition that goes on all around the world. It is but when combined with disagreements over environmental treaties, national missile defense, the development of a European defense force separate from NATO, resentment at the global influence of American popular culture, and the strain on NATO of a decade of problems in the Balkans, it suggests a more fundamental separation and rivalry between the United States and Europe.

What has this to do with China? Nations seek allies, as they confront enemies. China has displayed a heavy-handed approach to its relations with the United States during the EP-3 incident that suggests it sees the United States as its principal threat. The writings of Chinese military authorities confirm this. China will naturally seek allies to help it in its confrontation with the United States. These allies will be those who also find the United States threatening or at least problematic. The detention of the EP-3’s crew and the banana dispute point to a future world in which China and Europe will be arrayed against the United States.

Like other nations, the United States will seek allies, as it confronts its enemies. This is where NTV comes in. The Russian government has taken steps lately to suppress the liberties that the Russian people recovered only a short time ago. After measures to limit free association in political parties and labor unions, it is now trying to muzzle NTV, a television station that has criticized the government. Because of such actions and continued Russian interest in selling weapons to Iran, our relations with Russia have hit a rough patch lately. In the future, however, as China and Europe become more friendly, based on their opposition to the United States, we are likely to look on Russia as an ally. And Russia, wedged between two powers, Europe and China, and traditionally hostile to China, will want improved relations with the United States.

The rest of the world will take its bearings from this fundamental division. India, for example, will side with Russia and the United States because of its proximity to and historical problems with China. Indeed, our relations with India have improved over the last decade. The Middle East will divide, as it already is doing, between Israel and traditional countries like Saudi Arabia, who are friendlier with the United States, and other countries like Iran and Iraq friendlier with European countries.

These alignments are not inevitable nor do they have to be the source of violent conflict. But they appear to be taking shape before our eyes. That is the larger significance of the EP-3, bananas and NTV.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.