Surveillance and belligerence

Print edition : April 14, 2001

SINCE the Bush administration officially declared China to be a "strategic competitor", relations between Beijing and Washington have taken a beating. Recent events have shown that China is being specifically targeted and the tactics being used are reminiscent of the Cold War. The latest incident involving the mid-air collision between a Chinese Air Force jet and a U.S. spy plane has further worsened relations between the two countries. The slide started with the targeting of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Washington has also started encouraging high-level defections from China. Moreover, the U.S. is using the human rights bogey to seek to isolate China and encourage secessionist elements and disruptive forces like the Falun Gong. The latest incident took place in the first week of April. It has the potential to destabilise the entire region. Beijing has said that the U.S. plane, an EP-3, had deliberately bumped into the Chinese plane, an F-8 fighter, causing the Chinese plane to crash into the sea. The pilot of the Chinese plane is missing and is presumed dead.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin (left), with Prime Minister Zhu Rongji.-EUGENE HOSHIKO/AP

The U.S. plane, which was badly damaged in the accident, had to make an emergency landing in a Chinese air base in Hainan island. The incident took place about 90 km away from the coast of Hainan. China has acknowledged that the incident took place over international waters, just outside the country's territorial borders. The number of U.S. spy planes snooping over China has increased dramatically in recent months.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin has demanded that the U.S. accept full responsibility for the collision and apologise for the incident. Jiang Zemin also called for the immediate halt of all surveillance flights near China's coast. He said that China has sufficient evidence about the U.S. plane veering into one of the two Chinese F-8 planes, causing one of them to crash.

President George W. Bush, suddenly facing the most serious crisis since he assumed the Presidency, had not yet responded to the Chinese demand (at the time of going to press) but had instead demanded that the U.S. plane and its 24-member crew be released immediately. In a belligerent tone, he warned that the future of U.S.-China relations was at stake if the Chinese side did not accede to the demands of the U.S. Two U.S. warships were rushed to the area where the incident took place.

However, Bush's belligerent attitude only made China toughen its stance. U.S. officials were allowed access to the crew of the EP-3 only two days after the incident. The Chinese authorities also flatly rejected the Bush administration's claim that the spy plane constituted "sovereign U.S. territory" and said that the issue was anyway redundant as the plane had landed on Chinese territory without permission.

A senior U.S. Army official had warned the Chinese "not to seize, inspect or board the plane without U.S. permission". However, one of the last messages intercepted by the U.S. authorities after the plane landed on Chinese territory was that Chinese officials had boarded the plane. The EP-3 surveillance plane is said to contain a treasure trove of information. The four engine turbo-prop is used to intercept electronic communications on sea and land. It is said to have the capability to intercept even private e-mail and facsimile messages.

Initially, the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said that the U.S. had nothing to apologise for. But a couple of days after the incident, Powell expressed his "regret" about the mid-air collision and condoled the death of the Chinese pilot. The Chinese government said that this was a step in the right direction but that it was not enough to free the crew members. President Jiang Zemin reiterated this view before leaving on an extended tour of Latin America.

The White House was adamantly refusing to apologise, insisting that the U.S. plane was operating in international air space and "did nothing wrong". U.S. policymakers believe that Beijing's eagerness to get into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and host the 2008 Olympics would make it eventually adopt a conciliatory line. However, Beijing has reasons to be suspicious about the U.S. agenda in the region. China believes that Washington may use this incident as an excuse to supply Taiwan all the sophisticated weaponry it has asked for.

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