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The Melon Patch

By Will Baker

While driving to work this morning I listened to a very interesting piece on National Public Radio. The commentator offered an excellent metaphor which, helped make clear to me what is going on regarding the current incident with the Chinese over our surveillance aircraft. The commentator related an old Chinese saying: "don’t tie your shoes in a melon patch." With the message being that, if you do, it might appear that you are attempting to steal melons.

This metaphor made me think about a basic difference in thinking between ourselves and our Chinese sisters and brothers. In our country, unless there is a law, rule or regulation which, specifically states that, in a certain situation one should avoid the appearance of impropriety, we feel that it is our right, as free people, to exercise our discretion right up to the point just short of illegality. Whereas the Chinese feel that, even though there might not be a law specifically against something, there exists a moral imperative to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It seems to me that this difference in thinking may be the primary reason why we find ourselves on the verge of an international incident.

If I understand the events of the past few weeks correctly, in our country’s view, a U.S. military aircraft, collided with a Chinese military aircraft while on a "routine" surveillance mission, over international waters off the coast of China. However, according to the Chinese, the collision occurred because our jet was engaged in an act of provocation in their airspace. As a side note, it seems to me that it is important to recognize that there is dispute concerning what constitutes International waters off their coast: we recognize the traditionally accepted "twelve mile rule" whereas they claim a two-hundred mile buffer zone.

Again, if my understanding is correct, we have been conducting these surveillance flights for some time now. In fact, they began several years ago when tensions escalated over the Taiwan situation. Yes, I believe that is when the Chinese created their two hundred-mile buffer. In hindsight, it seems to me that they may have taken this action in order to prevent a situation such as the one, which now confronts us from occurring. Maybe they wanted to keep us out of their melon patch. But of course, given our mindset, we see no wrong in what we’ve done. After all, we were flying over international waters, and only entered Chinese airspace after our airplane was struck and damaged by the Chinese fighter, necessitating an emergency landing.

This difference in thinking seems very striking to me. The Chinese have been offended by our actions. And their actions seem quite irrational to us. They want an apology and a promise that; in the future we will refrain from similar acts of provocation. We want our people and property back. Of course, the backdrop to all of this are the myriad other issues such as trade, human rights and anti-terrorism cooperation agreements which, we hope to negotiate to our mutual satisfaction. As an aside: I sit on the Board of Directors for the Vermont Soap Company, a small but growing concern with about a million dollars in sales annually. Anyway, one of my fellow Board members, a very successful international business person, spoke at a recent Board Meeting about his anxiety over the fact  that, commercially speaking, in the future the Chinese might not only eat our lunches, they might eat us for lunch as well. He pointed out several examples that demonstrate that their markets and business enterprises have become much more sophisticated and competitive. And given the relationship that exists between their government and private corporations, in that regard they appear to have a competitive advantage that will only increase as time goes by. Commercially speaking, we see China as a huge market, ripe for exploitation. And it appears that they view us in a similar manner. But one major difference is that their manufactured cost of goods is significantly lower than ours.

But what does trade have to do with the current international incident? Well, kind reader, no matter what your views might be regarding free trade, it seems to me, that, as it relates to this situation, our mutual commercial interests might be a reason for optimism. Yes, I think that I will go out on a limb and predict a mutual resolution to this mini-crisis. Given the fact that our current administration is pretty much controlled by big money commercial interests, I believe that we will be compelled to bend. And the Chinese will bend also. They have been bending for thousands of years-remember how the colonial powers divvied up their country in the last century? Of course the Boxer Rebellion also demonstrated that they can be pushed too far.

But commercially speaking, the Chinese are operating on a much more level playing field than in the past--philosophically speaking, the World Community no longer tolerates the colonial model. And now that they are not at a competitive disadvantage, perhaps some of the positive benefits of free trade might start to accrue. When I look at history I see many examples of free and open trade helping in the exchange of ideas from people to people. And it seems to me that that is a very good thing. For the more that we exchange ideas, the more that we see that, even though we might look different than each other, we are all still sisters and brothers under the sun.

So here is to working towards a resolution to this problem, and to figuring out a way of gathering the military intelligence that we need, while staying out of their melon patch. And by the way, the Chinese are demanding an apology. So why not render it? One of their pilots was killed after all. And I for one feel quite badly about that.



 (Essay Collection)