Spy plane showdown

Can the hard-line Bush administration use diplomacy to prevent a crisis with China? Experts weigh in.

Topics: China,

Spy plane showdown

The United States and China are embroiled in one of the most delicate incidents to affect relations between the countries in years. On Saturday night, East Coast time (Sunday morning in China), an American spy plane carrying a crew of 24 collided with a Chinese fighter.

The damaged American aircraft, a state-of-the-art Naval EP-3 equipped with some of the most advanced technology in the American intelligence arsenal, landed safely on a Chinese military base on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. The Chinese fighter and its pilot are still missing.

On Tuesday, Chinese authorities permitted U.S. diplomats to meet with the plane’s 24 crewmembers for the first time since the emergency landing. However, the Chinese are refusing to immediately release the crew members or the plane.

Numerous sources have reported that Chinese authorities, defying U.S. demands, boarded the plane and removed the crew, but this has not been confirmed. However, the UPI wire service did quote a former intelligence official who claims to have seen spy photos collaborating those reports.

At a Tuesday press conference, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters: “I hope it is a beginning of an end to this incident. I hope that this meeting will lead to the rapid release of all of the members of the crew … and I hope also it will lead to the rapid return of our airplane.”

After meeting with the crew members, Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock told reporters, “My counterparts here have given me some access. I have seen the entire crew. They are all in good health and are being well taken care of. Their spirits are high and we’re going to get them home as soon as possible.”

Later Tuesday, President Bush admonished the Chinese to end the conflict. “It is time for the Chinese government to return our plane,” he said.

Whether the incident compromises American intelligence capabilities, most observers expect diplomacy to prevent a crisis. But against the background of renewed tensions between Beijing and Washington, the stakes of the face-off are heightened.

Salon asked a panel of experts on international relations to comment on the current situation.

Robert Beisner is professor emeritus of history at American University. He is currently writing a biography of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson.



I think the Bush administration is struggling not to get back to Cold War rhetoric. There clearly has been a shift in tone since the Clinton administration left. These guys are prepared to be harder toward the Chinese and less forgiving. There’s some real infighting going on in the administration. Powell always looks for a way away from conflict. I didn’t favor him to be secretary of state — he’s too inclined to negotiate away conflicts. My sense is that the Bush administration is trying not to get back into the old days. They’ve got an awful lot riding on decent relations with China, as every administration has for 20 years.

I don’t know if anybody knows for sure what’s going on with the Chinese. The political leadership may be more inclined to work out something than the military is. The Chinese have a hard time making decisions — they have a very cumbersome state structure and they’ve got a “dictatorship,” but they’ve still got politics and the equivalent of parliamentary elections coming up, and no one wants to look soft on the United States.

This crisis reminds me of the Pueblo incident [the American spy ship that was seized by North Korea in 1968]. They took the whole crew hostage and took the ship. There have been other cases going way back to World War II when American bombers couldn’t complete bombing runs and had to make emergency landings in the Soviet Union. The Soviets were supposed to be our good allies, but they hauled the crews in, held them incommunicado and, we gradually learned over the years, did retro-copying of the B-29s. Their technologists crawled all over the airplanes so they could create bombers like that. Now, I’m sure the Chinese would be very interested in what’s on that airplane.

It’s not unprecedented for a crew to be held this long. There were a number of incidents during the Cold War where ships got into territorial waters and there were American planes that constantly flew into Soviet territory over 40 or 50 years of the Cold War. Some of them were shot down. Their crews were captured, but finally released.

But the fact that this was an intelligence airplane does complicate the situation a lot because the United States can’t say, “We were checking the cod fleet.” The big argument, of course, is whether they were still over international waters at the time of the collision, and I don’t know the answer to that.

Orville Schell is the dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a prominent national Sinophile.

It’s potentially quite serious because behind any incident like this is a giant aquifer of very volatile sentiment, which grows out of China’s deep ambivalence about the West’s power predation, colonialism, being bullied, criticized and, last and most important, being defeated and humiliated. It’s tempting for government to use them to pump up xenophobic, anti-foreign feelings inside China. It’s still unclear whether they’re going to do that, but there’s plenty of that feeling floating around the Internet chat rooms of China.

This could become the “Son of Belgrade.” For the last 150 years, what’s made the relationship [between the U.S. and China] so interesting and edgy is that it’s an equal measure of strong feelings of love and hate for the United States — and that goes the other way around, too. It’s this odd combination of fascination, enthrallment and seductiveness of the U.S., and at the same time, feelings of being preyed upon and “sliced up like melon” as they liked to say during the colonial powers. We get these oscillating pulses of contradictory sentiment. And this is the perfect sort of vessel for some Belgrade bombing-type xenophobia. Afterall, it was the Chinese plane that went down, while the U.S. plane crew was spying. It brings back the same feeling of China being victimized, powerless.

I’m not a Republican, but this incident with the aircraft notwithstanding, there was very interesting new experiment underway in the dynamic between the U.S. and China. It was unclear how it would be resolved. The U.S., under Bush, seems no longer so willing and eager to do whatever has to be done to keep the relationship on the tracks. This new move put China a little off balance. China was suddenly in the odd position of having to make an effort rather than just to threaten. We don’t know whether this situation drew out of an artful policy designed by the Bush administration or by the absence of a policy. But it was something I was watching with enormous interest because China was trying to beseech a little bit. It’s not a bad place to have them. But all of that may now be just changed.

It’s an utterly bizarre situation. The Chinese military’s not going let go of the plane very quickly. I’m sure they’ll release the crew; we’re not looking at the Pueblo here.

Abraham D. Sofaer is George P. Shultz distinguished scholar and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the foreign policy institute of Stanford University.

It’s very clear to me that, under international law, China couldn’t board this plane without American permission. If the plane were on fire, they could have put it out and rescued people, but it’s clear that under these circumstances, they shouldn’t have boarded.

It’s difficult to say what’s motivating the Chinese in this incident. There’s still a general hostility against the U.S. because we are about to make this decision about whether to sell arms to Taiwan, and also because we bombed their embassy in Belgrade last year. This gives them a chance to turn the screws a little bit.

They contend that our plane bumped the fighter plane deliberately, and we say that’s not true. The two states could get out of this by agreeing to a memorandum of understanding that says we agree to cooperate in investigating this matter. If the U.S. agrees to do that, the Chinese have no legitimate complaint.

The Chinese claim that the U.S. plane bumped the fighter jet on purpose. It’s impossible to say whether the Chinese version of the crash is true, but anything is credible at this point. What could’ve happened here is a sky-high game of chicken. Let’s say the fighter is flying really very close to the spy plane, and the spy plane is on a certain course. Let’s say the fighter sets a course that would eventually lead to a collision. Who has to change course?

International law would say that it would be whoever set their course last. But both sides have a responsibility to avoid a collision at all costs. So you can envision a situation when, even if the Chinese plane was at fault, we would still have some degree of fault were an accident to occur.

The Bush administration should make clear that they are prepared to cooperate to get to the bottom of this, but they should also make it crystal clear that they will not tolerate boarding the plane. A Chinese reassurance in this context would be helpful, but China can’t really do much with the spy technology that’s on the plane anyway. It would take time for them to take the parts of the plane out, to figure out the systems and to test them. It would take several days.

I think that what the Chinese aim to do by detaining the crew is to prove that this was a deliberate act by the U.S. plane. What they want is to get the most unrehearsed story possible from the American crew, and that’s most likely to happen before the crew is in contact with U.S. officials. If the Chinese can get them to admit some culpability, a story could then be coordinated to their advantage. If the crew is really doing their jobs, however, they’ll say as little to the Chinese as possible.

I’m sure that the Chinese realize that this will encourage the U.S. to sell arms to Taiwan. It will put the administration under pressure to do as much as appropriate. This incident makes clear one very simple thing: that China, no matter its economic advancement, its desire to join the WTO or its efforts to host the Olympics, is still capable of acting irresponsibly. And if we have to assume that China is irresponsible or unreliable with an American spy plane, then it follows that it could act the same way when it comes to Taiwan.

Still, this is consistent with the way the Chinese handle a crisis. They see what the situation offers them, test the waters and then act. For the first day, that’s what they were doing. They’ve secured the plane, secured the crew, and they’ve thought the thing over. I believe that, by this time, they should have come to the conclusion that they should give American diplomats access to crew. If they’ve got any sense left in their heads, that’s what they’ll do.

Steven Aftergood is with the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Everybody is waiting to see how this unfolds and what it might mean. I would say that the pure intelligence aspect of it, that is, the hazard associated with the compromise of intelligence technology in the plane, is secondary at this point to the fact of the standoff between the U.S. and China.

This situation, which is rapidly becoming a confrontation, is the overriding issue and is itself more important than any intelligence detail that might be gained or lost.

I think it is a test, above all, for U.S. diplomacy to bring this encounter to a satisfactory conclusion. This is what we have diplomats for. We don’t need them when everything’s going fine. In the heat of the moment, the potential vulnerability of the hardware in the plane is not the most important issue.

Having said that, how important is the hardware? I don’t know. These planes themselves have been flying for decades. Although the electronics in this particular plane are at or close to the state of the art, so they would have to be considered rather sensitive. It’s not obvious to me that a lot could be gleaned from a visual inspection of the plane’s interior. If they were just to board it, they might learn something; they wouldn’t learn a lot. They would have to attempt to access the computer, the databases on board, and to download their contents including the software and the data that might have been collected. Much of that information will have been encrypted, so it’s not going to be immediately useful.

Beyond that, more could be learned by attempting to dismantle some of this stuff, which is something that they may want to refrain from doing, because that would really escalate things. That would turn it into a seizure of the plane, whereas right now it is a plane that has suffered a malfunction and has landed at the nearest available airport — that is nominally still the state of affairs. Any attempt to dismantle or seize the hardware would change the nature of this incident radically. That would be something I would imagine that China would think several times about before doing.

In a way, this is still not a crisis. This is just another example of things going wrong, which happens in one form or another with some frequency. The task at hand is to make sure that it does not reach the crisis stage, and that should be achievable.

Rodger Baker is a senior analyst for Stratfor.com.

The incident itself was probably caused because of the already-heightened tension with the U.S. The Chinese probably suggested to their pilots that they fly more aggressively in order to scare the U.S. plane. The actual interdicting of U.S. aircraft by the Chinese goes on all the time; it has been for decades, but the current heightened tension began after Bush became president. Bush’s team has labeled China as a particular area of concern for Asia, and U.S. leaks of what our new foreign policy and military posture will look like have heightened tensions. China had a recent defection of military officers to the U.S., and there are reports that the information given by the defectors triggered the Bush team to take a more hard-line approach with China.

The Chinese government itself does not want to see this escalate too far. One of the big focuses in China now is on economic growth. And economic growth under the current China plan requires international contact and good-enough relations to maintain strong economic contact with the rest of the world, including the United States. But they’ve kind of backed themselves into a corner on this issue. It’s likely an attempt to cover up their own partial responsibility for the accident. They quickly labeled it publicly an act of the U.S. — “the U.S. plane hit the Chinese plane.” Then the Chinese military took its cue and, according to reports, boarded the plane.

That throws Beijing into a difficult position. Because the military has now pushed them to do something they can’t take back. You can’t say, Well, after reviewing it, we didn’t board your plane. Beijing has to balance how they move now and deal with their internal factions: those who want to take a hard line with regard to U.S., and those who want improved political and economic relations.

Most of the apparent anti-American sentiment in China seems to be manipulated or fomented. China seems to be good at turning on or off surges of public anti-American sentiment. The Chinese government has been doing a good job of putting this sentiment up on the Internet. When the state media is telling you a U.S. spy plane flying in Chinese airspace rammed into a Chinese fighter that was just monitoring it, you can see where some of those reactions would come from. The Chinese government has been working lately on finding ways to exploit the Internet to its own benefit rather than just being a means of communication for dissidents and opposition groups. This is a wonderful example of how they’re doing it.

[As far as the danger of China acquiring U.S. military intelligence,] this type of plane mostly signals intelligence. It monitors radar and radio communications, things of that sort. It’s going to have on-board advanced equipment for doing this. It’s also going to have various types of equipment for encryption. But while it is unlikely that the Chinese would be able to take the encryption items or anything from the plane, if they were able to see what the U.S. had monitored on this mission, what types of signals we were paying attention to and what kind of intercepts they were monitoring, it would give them a very good look at what the U.S. sees and what China would need to improve.

But the chances of the Chinese getting hold of that are slim. The crew on the place would most likely have erased whatever they were recording on this current mission. They had a bit of time between the collision and landing. With a large crew of over 20, there were plenty of crew to land the plane and make sure most sensitive material was cleaned up or destroyed.

Jane Skanderup is director for programs at the Pacific Forum of CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

I haven’t noticed, among contacts with colleagues there or in press reports, any kind of growing anti-Americanism. There’s throughout the region a heightened awareness of what new policies might be enacted. But both the administration and private analysts, and I would include myself among them, are saying that there’s not likely to be any dramatic change, and I think China pretty much understands that.

It’s disheartening that it’s taken this long for any U.S. officials to actually be able to get to the site and get on board and see the crew. But you know one has to take into account, without being apologetic about it, that decision-making in China may not react well to crises. That is the case in Japan, which is a very different kind of government but still one that is not perhaps best set up to deal with crisis situations and react quickly. I wonder whether it’s just the internal process of figuring out what the PLA’s responsibility is vs. the political leadership, and any kind of provincial authorities. As autocratic and authoritarian as the regime is, it’s not set up for a crisis response.

That’s why I think it’s very important for cooler heads to prevail, while we stand firm in what we require and what we need the Chinese to do, and hold them to the expectation that they should follow through. We need to try and work out the details of the priorities we have, which are getting access to the crew and the plane and getting them back to the U.S. safely.

I think some of the comments coming out of Washington — I saw at least one quote from a senator — can tend to sound threatening. I think it’s very important to be firm. I thought President Bush’s statement that we need to hold China to the established diplomatic expectations, without going into further steps, or assuming that they won’t do that, was important.

I’m sure there are private conversations going on now. Many people have pointed out that, unlike the 1996 Cross-Strait crisis [when China rattled its saber by lobbing missiles into the Taiwan Straits] where we sent two aircraft carriers, we now have a U.S.-China military hot line in place. It remains to be seen how much it will be used and how helpful it is. Our ambassador to China, Adm. Prueher, has been very vigilant about setting up those military-military contacts. So I think he’s a very good person to be on the ground there, looking out for U.S. interests.

I think the most important thing is striking a balanced approach. We need to be very firm without escalating to any kind of threat; we have to hold China to what we think they ought to be doing as opposed to just being patient. It’s a very difficult policy line to take.

Ramon H. Myers is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

I honestly don’t know what’s going on in China, and I think that it’s not helpful to speculate. This is a very unusual series of events. I really don’t know what’s driving this; I don’t think anyone really does.

I hope that George W. Bush and Jiang Zamin have been on their own special phone talking about this; I hope that diplomatic initiatives are in place to remedy the situation, and that both sides follow through. If they do, then this incident will be over really quickly.

If the Chinese continue to withhold access to the crew, there will be a ratcheting up of rhetoric coming out of Washington, and a ratcheting up of rhetoric on both sides. As for arms sales to Taiwan, we don’t have any really definitive information; all we’ve heard are fragments in the press, with some admiral who’s returning from Taiwan saying one thing and someone from a Washington think tank saying something else.

Right now, I think the responsible thing is to stop speculating and wait for the rest of the facts.

Interviews conducted by Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan and Daryl Lindsey.

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