U.S. Payment to China Unjustified

August 16, 2001 • Commentary

The United States has offered to pay China $34,000 to cover costs associated with the April collision of a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet. “We have arrived at what we think is a fair figure for services rendered and assistance in taking care of the aircrew and some of the materials and contracts to remove the EP-3 plane,” stated Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley.

Beijing, however, is not at all happy with the offer of a $34,000 payment. Instead, Chinese government officials are demanding at least $1 million as compensation.

Washington’s offer is foolish and Beijing’s demand is outrageous. The United States should not pay even one dollar. Giving any payment would reward China for conduct that violated international law in multiple ways.

It is perfectly legal to conduct electronic surveillance of another country from international air space. (The wisdom of conducting such flights so close to the territory of a notoriously prickly power such as China is another matter.) 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.

That collision would never have occurred if the reconnaissance plane had not been illegally harassed by the Chinese fighter.

The actions of Chinese authorities after the collision were even more disturbing. The decision to enter the plane and remove the crew for questioning may have been warranted by the unusual circumstances of the EP-3 ‘s arrival. But detaining the crew and preventing them from having access to U.S. embassy officials for nearly 72 hours was a flagrant violation of international law. And declining to release the crew for nearly 2 weeks verged on creating a hostage incident.

The Bush administration already swallowed its pride by offering expressions of regret (i.e., a “half apology”) for the episode. Although the administration was under no obligation to make such a concession, U.S. officials probably had no choice if they wanted to get the crew back in a timely fashion and prevent a further deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations. Likewise, the administration could have done little to prevent Chinese authorities from insisting that the plane be cut up and shipped back to the United States in crates unless Washington was willing to escalate the confrontation.

Making compromises and accepting unpleasant realities is sometimes a necessary part of diplomacy. But rewarding a regime for egregious behavior is going far beyond what is necessary. The Bush administration should never have offered financial compensation. And given Beijing’s insulting demand for even more money, the administration should immediately rescind the offer.

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