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

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

Beijing has demanded an apology from Washington and continues to detain notonly the aircraft but the 24-member crew. The Bush administration hasexpressed regret for the death of the Chinese fighter pilot following thecollision but has steadfastly refused to apologize for conducting electronicsurveillance of China from international air space. Indeed, theadministration's request that the crew be released and returned to theUnited States is growing more insistent with each passing day.

Tragically, the incident is being exploited by advocates of confrontation inboth China and the United States. Some members of the U.S. Congress havedenounced Beijing and threaten to review China's trade status. They alsourge the Bush administration to approve all of the items on Taiwan's list ofweapons it wishes to purchase. Indeed, anti-PRC senators and congressmenurge the president to endorse the proposed Taiwan Security Enhancement Actwith all of its measures for military cooperation between Washington andTaipei. The American public was slow to react to the episode, but the levelof anger is building rapidly and a majority may soon support such steps.

The situation in China may be even worse. Hardliners in the PRC, perhapsreflecting an increasingly vocal and nationalistic public sentiment,advocate that China retain and examine the plane--which may be a treasuretrove of information about how the United States conducts electronicsurveillance missions. There are also ugly suggestions that the crew be puton trial for violating China's airspace, and perhaps even for espionage.

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

Beijing rightfully should make most of the concessions. When U.S. planesmistakenly bombed the PRC's embassy in Belgrade in 1999, U.S. officialspromptly apologized. That was appropriate because the United States wasclearly in the wrong. But an apology is unwarranted on this occasion.

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

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

We may never know for certain what caused the collision or whose fault itwas, but it is self-evident that the plane would never have entered Chineseair space had it not been for that collision.

The basis for a compromise solution exists. China should release the crewimmediately and apologize for detaining them for such an extended period.Beijing should also drop its demand for a U.S. apology, since it is unlikelyto get one in any case. The United States should accept the fact that theaircraft will be returned (if ever) only after Chinese intelligence agentshave given it a thorough inspection. Washington should mute its complaintsabout that matter and simply accept the loss as a case of bad luck. Itwould also be useful for Washington to assure Beijing privately that it willreduce (although not eliminate) electronic surveillance flights. For itspart, Beijing should quietly assure Washington that, in the future, itsfighter planes will not harass U.S. spy planes as long as they clearlyremain in international air space.

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