A Source of Needless Tensions in U.S.-China Relations

April 6, 2001 • Commentary

The collision of an American EP-3 spy plane with a Chinese F-8 fighter plane over the South China Sea is having a damaging impact on relations between the United States and the PRC all out of proportion to the incident itself.

Beijing has demanded an apology from Washington and continues to detain not only the aircraft but the 24‐​member crew. The Bush administration has expressed regret for the death of the Chinese fighter pilot following the collision but has steadfastly refused to apologize for conducting electronic surveillance of China from international air space. Indeed, the administration’s request that the crew be released and returned to the United States is growing more insistent with each passing day.

Tragically, the incident is being exploited by advocates of confrontation in both China and the United States. Some members of the U.S. Congress have denounced Beijing and threaten to review China’s trade status. They also urge the Bush administration to approve all of the items on Taiwan’s list of weapons it wishes to purchase. Indeed, anti‐​PRC senators and congressmen urge the president to endorse the proposed Taiwan Security Enhancement Act with all of its measures for military cooperation between Washington and Taipei. The American public was slow to react to the episode, but the level of anger is building rapidly and a majority may soon support such steps.

The situation in China may be even worse. Hardliners in the PRC, perhaps reflecting an increasingly vocal and nationalistic public sentiment, advocate that China retain and examine the plane–which may be a treasure trove of information about how the United States conducts electronic surveillance missions. There are also ugly suggestions that the crew be put on trial for violating China’s airspace, and perhaps even for espionage.

Voices of restraint on both sides of the Pacific need to be heard quickly before the incident escalates into a nasty confrontation that will do permanent damage to U.S.-PRC relations. Indeed, it may already be too late to entirely end the atmosphere of mutual mistrust that has developed.

Beijing rightfully should make most of the concessions. When U.S. planes mistakenly bombed the PRC’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999, U.S. officials promptly apologized. That was appropriate because the United States was clearly in the wrong. But an apology is unwarranted on this occasion.

It is perfectly legal to conduct electronic surveillance of another country from international air space. And there is no question that the U.S. plane was in international air space at the time the collision occurred. Both Beijing and Washington placed the plane at approximately 60 to 70 miles off the shore of Hainan island. Under international law, a country’s territorial waters and air space extend only 12 miles from shore. The plane entered Chinese air space only after it was damaged by the collision and needed to make an emergency landing.

The decision of Chinese authorities to enter the plane and remove the crew for questioning may have been warranted by the unusual circumstances. But retaining the crew and preventing U.S. diplomats from contacting them for nearly 72 hours is a clear violation under international law. And threatening to prosecute the crew is both morally and legally indefensible.

We may never know for certain what caused the collision or whose fault it was, but it is self‐​evident that the plane would never have entered Chinese air space had it not been for that collision.

The basis for a compromise solution exists. China should release the crew immediately and apologize for detaining them for such an extended period. Beijing should also drop its demand for a U.S. apology, since it is unlikely to get one in any case. The United States should accept the fact that the aircraft will be returned (if ever) only after Chinese intelligence agents have given it a thorough inspection. Washington should mute its complaints about that matter and simply accept the loss as a case of bad luck. It would also be useful for Washington to assure Beijing privately that it will reduce (although not eliminate) electronic surveillance flights. For its part, Beijing should quietly assure Washington that, in the future, its fighter planes will not harass U.S. spy planes as long as they clearly remain in international air space.

If a compromise along these lines is not concluded soon, the damage to relations between the United States and China could be considerable. There are hardliners in both countries who would welcome such a result. We should not let them enjoy such a victory.

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