When is a crisis not a crisis?

Helen Clark flies off today into a crisis. She is heading for China which has been warring with words with the United States. But that is not the crisis.

The crisis is in Japan, where she goes first, to drum up trade. Japan is rich but adrift, its banks tottering dangerously under bad loans. If they cannot be rescued, that might trigger a very nasty chain of events, compounding the slide in American share and managed funds prices and turning American consumers’ nervousness into fear, so driving the whole world into recession.

Ms Clark studiously refuses credence to that threat. She is now a confirmed talker-up of the economy.

So what about the other crisis, the China one? That, too, she discounts, with good reason. It is a media crisis.

A Chinese jet fighter hit an American propeller-driven surveillance plane going about its lawful (if shady) business in international airspace. Suggestions of American responsibility have as much credibility as attacks by protesters’ skulls on police batons. As on the sea, faster craft have responsibility for steering clear of slower ones.

Nor did the American plane invade Chinese territory. International law sanctions a distressed plane landing.

So does common decency. But that is not an abundant commodity among China’s potentates. The incident was an opportunity to grandstand for home consumption and to study the plane’s electronics.

A noisy playground game then ensued. The American aircrew members were detained as if prisoners-of-war. George Bush, with his own home constituency to convince, not least in a Congress touchy about China, demanded his boys back and, correctly, refused to apologise for something his country had not done.

Ms Clark added her bit on Monday, razzing a visiting Chinese general for immediate release of the crew.

Crisis? It was in neither country’s interests to push this beyond words, particularly China’s. It relies critically on American consumers and investors for its economic expansion. It needs United States agreement to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). If its economic expansion falters, there could be serious social unrest.

Which makes the excesses of the Chinese leaders’ posturing puzzling. Except when you remember they are thugs, fashioned by their climb up through a brutal, monolithic regime.

They run a particularly nasty prison camp system for dissidents. They hold Tibet in subjugation. They will not rest until they recover their lost province of Taiwan. Imbued with the imperial glories of China’s past, they see swathes of east Asia as inferior. They are now building up their armed forces.

Here China is seen officially as peaceable, its adoption of market economics set eventually to civilise its politics, as elsewhere in Asia, and contribute to the region’s prosperity.

And in fact in little ways China has softened. Foreign Minister Phil Goff has won agreement to visit Tibet.

This is interesting because Mr Goff used to be a critic of imperialist oppression. And Ms Clark will raise human rights in her Beijing talks.

The Australian Labour Party, likely to be in government by year’s end, is off on another tack. Shadow trade minister Peter Cook has placed high on his shopping list a trade agreement with China.

Senator Cook sees this not just in bilateral but in strategic terms, as a means to prod South-east Asia into action on a free trade area with Australia and New Zealand– the so-called AFTA-CER proposal, stalled last year.

This idea evokes scepticism among officials and ministers here, because of China’s ultra-low-cost consumer goods production and because China, only just coming up to WTO membership which will require wrenching adjustment, is thought far from ready for the plunge into bilateral deals.

It is proving difficult enough to get negotiations moving with Hong Kong, which Ms Clark hopes to initiate when she gets there on Tuesday.

But there is a lesson in Senator Cook’s enthusiasm. Australia has dramatically shifted its position on bilateral trade deals from rejection to headlong enthusiasm — and even the Kiwi-friendly Senator Cook refuses to say he would not take a bilateral deal with the United States if it meant leaving New Zealand out in the cold.

Now that would be a crisis.