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US Military

Spy Plane Crash in China

Project: US Military
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A map showing the location of the collision, and of the Hainan Island airfield where the crippled EP-3 landed.A map showing the location of the collision, and of the Hainan Island airfield where the crippled EP-3 landed. [Source: Military.com]A US EP-3 Aries II spy plane collides with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. The fighter crashes, killing the pilot; the EP-3 makes an emergency landing at a Chinese air base on China’s Hainan Island, a landing described as illegal by Chinese officials. 24 American crewmen—including three women and eight code-breakers—are taken into custody by the Chinese. The incident is the Bush administration’s first real foreign-policy crisis. [CNN, 4/2001; BBC, 4/5/2001] The precise location of the US plane is in dispute, with US officials saying that the plane was in international airspace when the collision occurred, and Chinese officials saying that the aircraft was over Chinese airspace. [PBS Frontline, 10/18/2001] Some military experts say that the crash is likely the fault of the Chinese pilot, who may have been engaging in what they call a pattern of “deliberate confrontation over the South China Sea, sending its fighter jets to harass American surveillance planes in international airspace.” [Capitalism Magazine, 4/9/2001] Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, commander of the US Pacific Command, supports the experts’ opinion on the Chinese pilots’ behavior towards US aircraft, telling the press, “I must tell you though that the intercepts by Chinese fighters over the past couple months have become more aggressive to the point we felt they were endangering the safety of Chinese and American aircraft. And we launched a protest at the working level. This is not a big deal, but we went to the Chinese and said, ‘Your aircraft are not intercepting in a professional manner. There is a safety issue here.’ So, this was a pattern of what we considered to be increasingly unsafe behavior.” Aviation expert Jim Eckes concurs: “Aviation protocol demands that the quicker plane take steps to avoid the larger, slower aircraft, which in this case was the EP-3 belonging to the US.” [CNN, 4/2/2001] Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) says that the Chinese pilot who died in the collision, Wang Wei, was known to have challenged US surveillance planes before, but this time Wei—who apparently died when he ejected from his aircraft and was pulled into the EP-3’s propellers—“exceeded his grasp.” The Chinese have a different story: “the immediate cause of the collision was the violation of flight rules by the US plane which made a sudden and big movement to veer towards the Chinese plane,” according to a Defense Ministry spokesman. “The US plane’s nose and left wing rammed the tail of one of the Chinese planes causing it to lose control and plunge into the sea.” Analysts from Jane’s Defense say that two Chinese F8 fighter planes “hemmed in” the larger, slower EP-3 in an attempt to make it change course, and thereby caused the collision; one source reports that one of the Chinese fighters was actually flying directly underneath the EP-3. [BBC, 4/5/2001] The aggressive and dangerous behavior of the Chinese pilots is later confirmed by the account of the collision by the pilot of the EP-3, Lieutenant Shane Osborn, who says, “He was harassing us.…The third time he hit us, is that an accident? I don’t know. Do I think he meant to hit us? No. I don’t think he meant to have his plane cut in two and go under the ocean. But his actions were definitely threatening my crew in a very serious manner and we all saw what happened.” [PBS Frontline, 10/18/2001] Almost immediately after the EP-3 lands, Chinese troops board the plane, ignoring a Pentagon warning to stay off the plane; on April 2, US ambassador to China Joseph Prueher confirms this, saying, “There is little doubt they have been over the airplane.” The EP-3 is filled with highly classified surveillance equipment. The US initially blames China for the crash; the Chinese say the opposite. President Bush’s demands that the plane and crew be returned immediately are ignored [CNN, 4/2001; Reuters, 4/4/2001] on April 2, Prueher says, “To date, we have been granted no access to either the crew or the aircraft,” and calls the lack of access “inexplicable and unacceptable.” [CNN, 4/2/2001] On April 11, the Chinese will return the US crew to American custody, but will retain the plane until July 2001 (see April 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Shane Osborn, Wang Wei, Richard Lugar, Jim Eckes, George W. Bush, Dennis C. Blair, Joseph Prueher

Category Tags: Spy Plane Crash in China

A day after Chinese president Jiang Zemin demands that the US apologize for the crash of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet that cost the life of the Chinese pilot (see March 31, 2001), Secretary of State Colin Powell expresses US “regret” over the death of pilot Wang Wei. The Pentagon claims that the crew of the American EP-3 managed to destroy much of the most sensitive surveillance equipment on the plane before it crash-landed on China’s Hainan Island, but, notes GlobalSecurity’s John Pike, “This airplane is basically just stuffed with electronics. Short of blowing up the airplane, there’s unavoidably a limit as to what they could destroy.” Chinese authorities say they will continue to detain the 24 crew members while they investigate the incident, and demand that the US halt all of its surveillance flights near Chinese territory. “We cannot understand why the United States often sent its planes to make surveillance flights in areas so close to China,” Jiang says. “And this time, in violation of international law and practice, the US plane bumped into our plane, invaded the Chinese territorial airspace and landed at our airport.” The next day, China’s Foreign Ministry says that Powell’s expression of regret is not enough; it again demands a full US apology and says that its officials will only meet with US officials to discuss the incident when Washington takes what it calls a “cooperative approach.” Bush reiterates Powell’s expression of regret over the death of Wei, and says though he does not want the incident to jeopardize Sino-American relations, the crew of the spy plane should be returned immediately. [CNN, 4/2001; Reuters, 4/4/2001]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Jiang Zemin, John Pike, Colin Powell, Wang Wei, George W. Bush

Category Tags: Spy Plane Crash in China

The EP-3 on an airstrip on Hainan Island.The EP-3 on an airstrip on Hainan Island. [Source: CNN]Chinese and US authorities continue to mediate the dispute over the crash of a US spy plane in Chinese territory (see March 31, 2001 and April 4-5, 2001). John Warner (R-VA), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the two sides are working on a written agreement on what happened, which would be approved by the leaders of both countries. Bush officials have been careful to call the detained US crew members “detainees”, but Senator Henry Hyde (R-IL) denounces the detention of the crew, calling them “hostages.” [CNN, 4/2001] Secretary of State Colin Powell is careful not to call the crew “hostages,” instead calling them “detainees[dq] who are being held [dq]incommunicado under circumstances which I don’t find acceptable.” [CNN, 4/4/2001] The pilot of the spy plane, Lieutenant Shane Osborn, later describes the interrogation tactics of the Chinese, which include verbal abuse and sleep deprivation. [PBS Frontline, 10/18/2001] Hyde is joined by outraged neoconservatives such as Robert Tracinski, who writes on April 9, “Meanwhile, [the Chinese] are ‘holding’ the airplane’s crew; ‘holding’ is the term we use to avoid calling our airmen ‘prisoners’ or ‘hostages.’” Tracinski echoes the sentiments of other neoconservatives when he accuses the US of pandering to the Chinese over the incident, and ignoring the plight of jailed Chinese dissidents. [Capitalism Magazine, 4/9/2001] On April 7, some details of the written agreement are revealed, with the US expressing further regrets over the death of the pilot of the Chinese fighter jet involved in the collision, but without the formal apology demanded by China. [CNN, 4/2001; Capitalism Magazine, 4/9/2001]

Entity Tags: Shane Osborn, Colin Powell, Henry Hyde, John W. Warner, Robert Tracinski

Category Tags: Spy Plane Crash in China

Negotiations and disputes over the collision and subsequent crash of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over Chinese waters continue (see March 31, 2001, April 4-5, 2001, and April 6-7, 2001). US officials warn long-term relations are at risk because of the dispute; Vice President Dick Cheney insists the US will not apologize over the incident. President Bush sends an unsigned letter to the wife of the slain Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, that expresses his “regret” over his death. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the letter is “very personal” and “not part of the political exchange.” Powell says that evening on national television, “[W]e have expressed regrets and we have expressed our sorrow, and we are sorry that the life was lost.” [CNN, 4/2001; Associated Press, 4/8/2001]

Entity Tags: Wang Wei, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Category Tags: Spy Plane Crash in China

The dispute between the US and China over the downed US spy plane over Chinese territory, and the subsequent detention of the crew by the Chinese (see March 31, 2001, April 4-5, 2001, April 6-7, 2001, and April 8, 2001), is resolved. Chinese officials approve the letter from US officials expressing regret over the incident, and early that morning, the crew members are released into American custody. [CNN, 4/2001] The plane, filled with secret US surveillance equipment, remains in Chinese custody; it will eventually be disassembled on Hainan Island by US crews and returned to American custody in July, 2001. [US Pacific Command, 7/2001] Defense expert Paul Beaver says China’s acquisition of even part of the surveillance equipment—whatever was not destroyed by the crew before the plane was boarded by Chinese troops—is an incalculable loss to the United States. China may cut the US lead in electronic warfare by at least a decade. “The EP-3E is the jewel in the crown of the US Navy’s electronic intelligence gathering capability and the loss of its secrets to a potential unfriendly nation is a grievous loss to the US,” Beaver writes. He writes that the loss of the EP-3 is perhaps the most serious loss to the US intelligence community since the downing of Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1961, and warns that China could even sell the technology it acquires to nations such as Russia or Pakistan. [BBC, 4/3/2001] It is not publicly revealed until 2006 that President Bush secretly engaged Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar to conduct the delicate negotiations with the Chinese over the US aircraft and crew. Bandar, a close friend of the Bush family and a senior Saudi official, is an unusual choice for the negotiations, but Bandar has a special relationship with the Chinese due to Saudi Arabia’s various deals to purchase arms and missiles, and the increasing reliance of China on Saudi oil. Bandar, never a modest man, considers it a personal favor from the Chinese to have them release the 24 American hostages. Bandar also oversees the wording of the American “apology” to the Chinese for the incident, where the US apologizes for entering Chinese airspace to make an emergency landing, but does not apologize for the E-3’s legitimate intelligence-gathering mission. Secretary of State Colin Powell, nominally in charge of the US negotiations, only finds out about Bandar’s efforts through the NSA’s monitoring of Bandar’s phone calls to the Chinese; when he calls Bandar to congratulate him on his success, Bandar snaps to the Secretary of State, “How the hell do you know?” [Woodward, 2006, pp. 28-29] Media pundit Eric Alterman characterizes the response of the US media as “extremely indulgent” towards Bush, with the notable exception of neoconservatives, who complain about “the national humilation [Bush] has brought upon the United States” and Bush’s “weakness…and fear.” Alterman says that while the incident itself is a foreign policy disaster, the manipulation of a compliant US media is brilliant. He notes that Bush was able to apologize twice to the Chinese without actually being reported in America as apologizing. Neither was the tremendous intelligence loss of the EP-3 focused upon as the potential disaster that many military and intelligence officials perceived it to be. He quotes Washington Post correspondent John Harris as writing, “The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing about these uproars.…Take the recent emergency landing of a US surveillance plane in China. Imagine how conservatives would have reacted had Clinton insisted that detained military personnel were not actually hostages, and then cut a deal to get the people (but not the plane) home by offering two ‘very sorrys’ to the Chinese, while also saying that he had not apologized. What is being hailed as Bush’s shrewd diplomacy would have been savaged as ‘Slick Willie’ contortions.” [Alterman, 2003, pp. 194-197]

Entity Tags: Paul Beaver, John Harris, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Eric Alterman, Bandar bin Sultan, Francis Gary Powers, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Category Tags: Spy Plane Crash in China

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