The Boy who wants Cold War II

Imagine this. A Chinese Shenyang surveillance aircraft, bristling with state-of-the-art eavesdropping equipment so secret that no other intelligence organisation in the world knows exactly how advanced it is, takes off from a Cuban air-force base. It embarks on a routine spying mission, cruising approximately 70 miles off the east coast of the US and monitoring a US nuclear submarine's movements as well as American radio, radar, phone, mobile phone and fax communications from a radius of up to 400 miles inside the US mainland. Two US Air Force quick-response F-16s are sent up to keep an eye on the Shenyang plane; there is a collision and one of the F-16s plunges into the sea, apparently killing the US pilot. The Chinese crew head frantically to the small runway at Nantucket, where they manage to make an emergency landing of their badly crippled aircraft.

Washington zooms quickly into action to avert a crisis. It immediately gives the order to free the 21 Chinese men and three women crew, allowing them to leave Nantucket under the auspices of Chinese diplomats and then fly straight back to China. On the tarmac at Nantucket, armed US Marine guards are stationed outside the Shenyang plane - which the US has immediately accorded sovereign diplomatic immunity and not even attempted to peek inside - until a Chinese crew arrives to fly it back to Cuba. The search-and-rescue mission for the missing US pilot is unsuccessful, but quickly forgotten in the welter of delight that Americans feel at having avoided a dangerous international incident. In particular, they are relieved that they have assuaged Chinese anger and bitterness.

This scenario may be ridiculous, but it is roughly a mirror image of what happened in recent days - and what the US then asked of China. Perhaps being the world's undisputed superpower gives Americans this sense of entitlement, or perhaps there is just an overriding ignorance of the sensitivities of the rest of the world: I suspect few Americans realise that they comprise just 5 per cent of the world's population, or that in terms of population China is almost five times bigger than the US. Had Chinese eavesdroppers really landed on Nantucket, I fear there would have been a widespread clamour for their immediate execution as spies who intruded without permission on to US territory.

Poor Boy George, naturally, soon found himself hopelessly out of his depth in his first test on foreign affairs. His handlers saw to it that he made only brief, carefully scripted comments. In the election campaign, he had casually dismissed China as a "strategic competitor", rather than part of the strategic partnership painstakingly built up first by his dad (following the 1989 Tiananmen Square outrages) and then by the Clinton administration. Bush I, among the many milestones on his CV, was a US ambassador to China; Boy George has left these shores only a handful of times in his 54 years.

Now all his woeful inexperience, at home and abroad, is coming home to roost. Much of Boy George's approach has been that his "charm" would disarm all foes, be they domestic opponents or major foreign powers such as China. He is due to be making a visit to Beijing in October, for example - but is also expected to make a decision in the next month whether to go ahead with a major US arms deal with Taiwan, letting it have four destroyers equipped with the AEGIS battle management system and other weaponry.

Yet mainland China is now America's second-biggest trading partner, worth about $115bn a year. Thus Boy George is discovering that life is a little more complicated than it was when he was merely signing execution warrants in Texas, and that a rueful grin is not enough to solve the world's tricky problems.

In fewer than a hundred days, in fact, Boy George has already been propelled on to the throne of titular head of a government well to the right of Ronald Reagan's. Last month, on the advice of his cold-war warrior and 68-year-old defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, he ordered the expulsion of 50 Russian spies. Last Tuesday, Rumsfeld was forced to reverse his order that three US destroyers lurk in the waters of the South China sea: a clear sign that fissures are already developing in his foreign policy team, with the secretary of state, Colin Powell, forcefully warning of the dangers of such posturing.

Having destroyed the Chinese embassy in the bombing of Belgrade nearly two years ago, the US is hardly now in a position to lord it over China. To the Jiang Zemin regime, hanging on to power by the skin of its teeth, the latest US blunder is a godsend: by whipping up nationalistic, anti-American fervour, it can bring some semblance of unity to its fascistic country. The first record I can find of a Chinese aircraft intercepting a US surveillance plane was in 1962, so there is hardly anything dramatically new about what happened. And when a Soviet pilot in his Mig-25 defected to Japan in 1976, the US immediately granted him American citizenship - and then stripped the Mig apart and analysed its innards before shipping it back months later.

"I hope this is the beginning of an end to this incident," Powell said in Key West last Tuesday. But I suspect Powell is already wondering what he has got himself into by joining this Boy George administration: with Rumsfeld (and Dick Cheney) pushing for an aggressive National Missile Defence system, the US is close to alienating practically every country in the world (except Britain, naturally).

Boy George and the cronies who propel him along hanker for the good old days: in this case, that means a return to the macho swaggering of cold-war rhetoric.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube