China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications
CRS Report for Congress
China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April
2001: Assessments and Policy Implications
Updated October 10, 2001
Shirley A. Kan (Coordinator),
Richard Best, Christopher Bolkcom, Robert Chapman,
Richard Cronin, Kerry Dumbaugh, Stuart Goldman,
Mark Manyin, Wayne Morrison, Ronald O’Rourke
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
American Law Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001:
Assessments and Policy Implications
The serious incident of April 2001 between the United States and the People’s
Republic of China (PRC) involved a collision over the South China Sea between a
U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval
F-8 fighter that crashed. After surviving the near-fatal accident, the U.S. crew made
an emergency landing of their damaged plane onto the PLA’s Lingshui airfield on
Hainan Island, and the PRC detained the 24 crew members for 11 days. Washington
and Beijing disagreed over the cause of the accident, the release of the crew and
plane, whether Washington would “apologize,” and the PRC’s right to inspect the EP-
3. In the longer term, the incident has implications for the right of U.S. and other
nations’ aircraft to fly in international airspace near China. (This CRS Report, first
issued on April 20, 2001, includes an update on the later EP-3 recovery.)
The incident prompted assessments about PRC leaders, their hardline position,
and their claims. While some speculated about PLA dominance, President and
Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin and his diplomats were in the
lead, while PLA leaders followed in stance with no more inflammatory rhetoric. Still,
the PLA is likely to benefit from this incident. Despite PRC claims that the EP-3
plane caused the accident, it appears that the PLA pilot, executing a close pass in an
apparent attempt to impress or intimidate the EP-3 crew, made a fatal error in
judgment. International law is clear that all aircraft have a right of overflight with
respect to ocean areas beyond the territorial sea (past 12 miles out).
There are implications for U.S. policy toward the PRC and Taiwan, and defense
policy. This incident of April 2001 is the third in a series of major troubling
difficulties since the mid-1990s that could have serious implications for U.S.-PRC
relations. The standoff raised questions about whether the issues of the incident and
arms sales to Taiwan should be linked and whether to change the process of annual
arms sales talks with Taipei. A further worsening of political ties could negatively
affect the business climate in China for U.S. firms and disrupt negotiations over
China’s WTO accession. Airborne reconnaissance remains a vital component of
intelligence collection for military and other national security purposes. Observers
speculate that the chief benefit to the PRC from inspecting the EP-3 would be to
gather information about U.S. targets and degree of success that could enable them
to prepare countermeasures to hinder future U.S. surveillance efforts. The incident
has potential implications for U.S. military surveillance operations in at least four
areas: operational strain on the EP-3 fleet, conditions for conducting airborne
surveillance missions in the future, the need for escorts or other protective forces, and
using unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) for airborne surveillance missions.
There are also implications for U.S. relations with allies and others. Japan seems
increasingly concerned about PRC assertiveness. South Korea is concerned that a
major deterioration in U.S.-China relations could undermine its “sunshine policy” of
engaging North Korea. The incident may add to Manila’s desire to revive its security
ties with Washington. Australia has concerns. Moscow’s relatively restrained public
response to the incident is surprising and noteworthy.
The EP-3 Incident and U.S. Interests.................................1
The Collision and Detention of U.S. Crew.........................1
U.S. Interests After the Return of the Crew........................7
Update on the EP-3's Recovery and Payment Issue..................7
Assessments of the Collision Incident.................................9
PRC Leadership and Decision-making............................9
Strategy to Push Back U.S. Presence.........................9
Best Defense Is a Good Offense.............................9
PLA in Command.......................................10
Nationalistic Public Opinion...............................12
Reactions to U.S. Positions...............................13
The PLA’s Pattern of Aggressive Interceptions....................14
U.S. and PRC Military Aircraft................................16
EP-3 Maritime Reconnaissance Plane........................16
Y-8 Airborne Surveillance Capabilities.......................16
Cause of the Collision and Flying Maneuvers......................18
Selected Issues Under International Law.........................19
Implications for U.S. Policy.......................................21
Policy toward Beijing........................................21
Arms Sales to Taiwan.......................................23
Accession to the WTO and Normal Trade Relations.................24
Implications ........................................... 26
Maritime Surveillance Operations...............................29
EP-3E Fleet Operational Strain............................31
Conditions for Conducting Airborne Surveillance...............32
Potential Need for Escorts................................33
UAVs for Airborne Surveillance............................33
Relations with Selected Asian Allies and Russia....................34
Japan ................................................ 34
Australia ............................................. 37
Russia ............................................... 37
List of Figures
Pictures of EP-3E and F-8II Aircraft(not to scale)......................16
List of Tables
Comparison of Selected Capabilities of EP-3E and F-8..................17
China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April
2001: Assessments and Policy Implications
The EP-3 Incident and U.S. Interests1
The serious incident of April 2001 between the United States and the People’s
Republic of China (PRC) involved a collision over the South China Sea between a
U.S. plane on a routine, overt reconnaissance mission and a People’s Liberation Army
(PLA)2 fighter conducting what is usually a normal interception. The U.S. aircraft
flew out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. Its crew of 24 military service men
and women (with 22 from the Navy, 1 from the Marines, and 1 from the Air Force)
are based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington State and Misawa Naval
Air Station in Japan. Shortly after 9:00 am on April 1, 2001 (shortly after 8:00 pm
on March 31, 2001 in Washington), a U.S. Navy EP-3E (Aries II) turboprop
reconnaissance aircraft and a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) F-8II jet
fighter3 accidentally collided in international airspace about 70 miles off the PRC’s
Hainan island. After surviving the near-fatal accident, the U.S. crew made an
emergency landing of their damaged plane onto the island at the PLAN’s Lingshui
airfield, and the PRC subsequently detained the 24 crew members for 11 days. The
PLAN’s F-8 fighter crashed into the sea and the pilot, Wang Wei, was lost.
Washington and Beijing disagreed over the cause of the accident, when and how
to release the U.S. crew and plane, whether the U.S. government would “apologize,”
and the PRC’s right to board the U.S. aircraft and learn about its equipment.
Moreover, in the longer-term, the incident has implications for the right of U.S. and
other nations’ aircraft to fly in international airspace near China. The incident affected
significant U.S. interests, prompted assessments of a number of questions about the
PRC leadership and its claims, and raised implications for U.S. foreign and defense
policies and intelligence operations, especially policy toward China.
The Collision and Detention of U.S. Crew
On the night of April 1, 2001, in Beijing (in the morning in Washington), the
PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and government-controlled media first publicly
reported that there was a collision between U.S. and PRC military aircraft. The PRC
said that the collision occurred at 0907 that morning (Beijing and local time), 104 km
1Written by Shirley Kan, Specialist in National Security Policy.
2The PRC’s military is collectively called the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
3Wen Wei Po, a PRC-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, reported that the fighter was the
upgraded F-8II version. In the late 1980s, until the Tiananmen Crackdown of 1989, the
United States helped to improve the avionics of the F-8II under the “Peace Pearl” program.
(about 65 miles) southeast of the PRC’s Hainan island over the South China Sea. The
PRC issued the announcement about 13 hours after the collision. From the beginning,
the PRC’s statements blamed the U.S. side for the collision. The PRC Foreign
Ministry claimed that the EP-3 “suddenly turned” toward the PLA fighters and that
the EP-3’s nose and left wing collided with the PLA fighter, causing it to crash. The
PRC also accused the EP-3 of entering “China’s territorial airspace” without
permission and landing at Lingshui airport on Hainan island at 0933 (26 minutes
later), when the U.S. plane made its emergency landing. While detaining the 24 U.S.
crew members on the island, the PRC declared that it made “appropriate
arrangements” for them.4
The new George W. Bush Administration faced its first major foreign policy
crisis, and U.S. interests focused on the return of the crew. In Hawaii, on the
morning of April 1, 2001, about 18 hours after the collision, Admiral Dennis Blair,
Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), in Hawaii issued a press5
statement and held a press conference. He reported that the EP-3 surveillance
aircraft was on a “routine operation” in international airspace over the South China
Sea about 70 miles off Hainan island, when it was intercepted by PLA fighters, and
one of them “bumped into the wing of the EP-3E aircraft.” The EP-3’s pilot declared
a Mayday and safely made an emergency landing at Lingshui on Hainan island.
Admiral Blair declared that the plane has “sovereign immunity,” and the PRC may not
board it or keep it. He expressed frustration at the lack of cooperation from the PRC
in returning the crew and the plane, and at the PRC’s denial to the crew of phone calls
to U.S. officials or families. The crew’s last message from the plane to the Pacific
Command simply said “we’ve landed, and we’re okay.” Blair said that the PRC did
not notify the American side, but that U.S. representatives contacted PRC officials,
who then reported that the crew members were safe.
While saying that U.S. reconnaissance operations and the PLA’s interceptions
are “routine,” Adm. Blair revealed that the PLA fighters engaged in a pattern of
“increasingly unsafe behavior.” He disclosed that U.S. officials had already protested
to the PRC that PLA pilots, “starting several months ago,” displayed flying
professionalism that was dangerous to them and to U.S. planes.
Moreover, Adm. Blair responded to and disputed the PRC’s version of events
that the U.S. aircraft abruptly turned into the PLA fighter and caused the collision.
He stressed that “an EP-3E is about the size of, say, a 737. It flies generally about
300 knots. The Chinese aircraft is about like an F-16. It’s a fighter aircraft. It flies
at about twice that speed. Big airplanes like this fly straight and level on their path.”
The EP-3E, according to Blair, was “just chugging along in broad daylight.”
As Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later explained, the PRC initially
failed to communicate with the United States and allow contact with the crew despite
4 “CCTV Carries FM Spokesman’s Comments on U.S. Military Plane Incident,” Beijing
CCTV, in FBIS, April 1, 2001; “PRC FM Spokesman Zhu Bangzao Comments on Aircraft
Collision Incident,” Zhongguo Xinwen She [China News Agency], in FBIS, April 1, 2001.
5 U.S. Pacific Command, press statement and press conference of Adm. Dennis Blair, Camp
Smith, Hawaii, April 1, 2001.
U.S. attempts to contact the PRC at a high level.6 So, in the late morning of April 2,
2001, the President appealed to PRC leaders from the White House, saying that “our
priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew, and the return of the aircraft
without further damaging or tampering. The first step should be immediate access by
our embassy personnel to our crew members. I am troubled by the lack of a timely
Chinese response to our request for this access.” Bush also expressed concern about
the PLA’s pilot, offering to assist in search and rescue.7
In his first public statements on April 3, PRC President Jiang Zemin expressed
concerns about the PLAN pilot. Jiang then demanded that the United States bear full
responsibility and stop reconnaissance flights in the airspace along China’s coast.8
Also that day, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the collision occurred above
China’s “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), claiming that the U.S. plane “threatened
China’s security,” and called for the United States to apologize (“daoqian”).9
At around midnight on the night of April 3 (about noon in Washington), the U.S.
Defense Attache in Beijing, Brigadier General Neal Sealock, finally gained access to
the detained crew members on Hainan island, but he was unable to secure their
release.10 After hearing from General Sealock, President Bush issued a second
statement in the afternoon that day, saying that “now it is time for our servicemen and
women to return home. And it is time for the Chinese government to return our
plane. This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and
productive relationship between our two countries.”11 Later, Secretary of State Colin12
Powell explicitly expressed “regret” for the loss of the PLA pilot.
In the morning of April 4, however, the Beijing leadership issued further
demands. Upon departure for planned visits to six Latin American countries,13
President Jiang called for the United States to “apologize” for the incident. (He was
not scheduled to return to Beijing until April 17.) Later that day, Secretary Powell
6Interview with Jim Lehrer, April 13, 2001.
7White House, “Statement by the President on American Plane and Crew in China,” April 2,
8As reported by Xinhua, April 3, 2001, in FBIS.
9PRC, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, statement of spokesman Zhu Bangzao (in Chinese), April
Xinhua, April 3, 2001, in FBIS. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,
the EEZ is an area extending up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline, beyond and adjacent
to the “territorial sea” (extending 12 nautical miles from the coastline), over which a state has
“sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving, and managing the
natural resources, whether living or non-living.”
10Reuters, April 3, 2001; Craig Smith, “U.S. Officials Meet With 24 Still Detained With
Aircraft,” New York Times, April 4, 2001.
11White House, “Statement by the President,” Rose Garden, April 3, 2001.
12Department of State, “Briefing for the Press Aboard Aircraft En Route to Andrews Air
Force Base,” April 3, 2001.
13Xinhua, April 4, 2001, in FBIS.
did not apologize, but said that “we regret that the Chinese plane did not get down
safely, and we regret the loss of the life of that Chinese pilot. But now we need to
move on, and we need to bring this to a resolution.”14
Later that evening, however, a turning point apparently came when Secretary
Powell expressed his views in a letter to PRC Vice Premier Qian Qichen, sent through
PRC Ambassador Yang Jiechi.15 Qian was traveling with President Jiang and had just
met Powell and other U.S. officials in Washington, including President Bush on
Still, on April 5, the PRC Foreign Ministry insisted on an official apology.16
While not apologizing, President Bush sent a third message to Beijing that afternoon,
saying “I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes is
lost. And our prayers go out to the pilot, his family. Our prayers are also with our
own servicemen and women. And they need to come home. The message to the17
Chinese is, we should not let this incident destabilize relations.” Meanwhile, the
Pentagon indicated that the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (not a
commission) between U.S.-PRC militaries (a loose framework to talk about how to
avoid incidents at sea and in the air) might provide a basis for discussing the collision,
and Administration officials hinted at progress through intensive diplomacy in both
capitals.18 Moreover, U.S. officials began to provide information and photographs
showing that the PLAN pilot who was lost had flown risky interceptions close to U.S.
aircraft before (as close as 10 feet away), including one encounter where he held up19
a piece of paper with his e-mail address on it. In a positive response that day,
President Jiang emphasized “bilateral relations.”20
On the night of April 6 on Hainan, the PRC allowed General Sealock a second
meeting with the crew, and Sealock briefed the President afterwards (10:25 am in
Washington).21 That day, Vice Premier Qian sent a letter of reply to Secretary Powell
reportedly again asking for an “apology,” and officials working closely with the two
14Department of State, Secretary Colin L. Powell, “Remarks Following Meeting with King
Abdullah of Jordan,” April 4, 2001.
15Sanger, David and Jane Perlez, “Powell Offers China Aides Outline for Standoff’s End,”
New York Times, April 5, 2001.
16“PRC FM Spokesman Demands Official U.S. Apology on Plane Incident,” Xinhua, April
17White House, “Remarks by the President at American Society of Newspaper Editors Annual
Convention,” April 5, 2001.
18Department of Defense, news briefing, April 5, 2001. Jane Perlez and David Sanger, “Bush
Aides Saying Some Hope Is Seen to End Standoff,” New York Times, April 6, 2001.
19Myers, Steven Lee and Christopher Drew, “U.S. Aides Say Chinese Pilot Reveled in Risk,”
New York Times, April 6, 2001.
20“China Daily Cites Jiang Zemin in Chile on Aircraft Incident, Status of U.S. Crew,” China
Daily, April 6, 2001, in FBIS.
21Greenberg, Jonah, Reuters, April 6, 2001. Secretary of State Colin Powell, “On-the-record
Press Briefing (China),” April 6, 2001.
presidents exchanged drafts of a U.S. letter to be signed by U.S. Ambassador Joseph
Prueher in Beijing.22
On the morning of April 8 in Hainan (local time), the PRC allowed General
Sealock to have a third meeting with 8 of the detained crew. On a Sunday morning
talk show, Secretary Powell declared that “we have nothing to apologize for at this
point,” but he also said, “there is a widow out there. And we regret that. We’re sorry
that her husband was lost no matter what the fault was.” Powell added that “we do
acknowledge that we violated their airspace, but look at the emergency circumstances
that that pilot was facing. And we regret that. We’ve expressed sorrow for it, and
we’re sorry that that happened, but it can’t be seen as an apology, accepting23
Then, on April 9, the PRC allowed General Sealock a fourth meeting with the
crew who remained captive, this time with all 24 members.24 That morning in
Washington, after talking with Sealock, President Bush issued his fourth message
calling for the crew’s release. He warned of “damage” to U.S.-China relations.25 On
April 10, General Sealock met with the crew detained on Hainan for a fifth time.26
Finally, in Beijing on April 11, Ambassador Prueher sent a letter of regret, with
agreed wording in English to show regret and sorrow without an apology. The letter
expressed “sincere regret” over the missing PLA pilot and plane, and that the United
States is “very sorry” for the loss of the pilot, Wang Wei. Also, while noting that the
U.S. aircraft had to make an emergency landing for the safety of the crew, the letter
expressed that the United States is “very sorry” the EP-3 entered China’s airspace
without verbal clearance. The letter included the expectation that the crew would be
allowed to leave China “as soon as possible.” The U.S. side agreed to hold one
meeting starting on April 18 “to discuss the incident,” including the cause of the
accident, how to avoid future collisions, and the prompt return of the EP-3E aircraft.
Finally, the letter “acknowledged” the PRC government’s “intention to raise U.S.
reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting.”27 While saying that PRC Foreign
Minister Tang Jiaxuan accepted the letter, the PRC announced that it would permit
the U.S. crew to leave China, “out of humanitarian considerations.” However, Tang
continued to demand that the United States stop reconnaissance flights near China’s
22“PRC’s Qian: U.S. Attitude ‘Still Unacceptable’; Apology ‘Extremely Important’,” Xinhua,
April 7, 2001; David Sanger and Craig Smith, “Bush and Jiang Exchange Drafts of a Letter
Stating U.S. Regrets,” New York Times, April 7, 2001; John Pomfret and Philip Pan, “China
Insists on U.S. Apology,” Washington Post, April 8, 2001.
23CBS, “Face the Nation” program, April 8, 2001.
24Bodeen, Christopher, AP, April 9, 2001.
25White House, “Remarks by the President in Photo Opportunity with the Cabinet,” April 9,
26“U.S. Crew Getting Exercise, News – Diplomat Says,” Reuters, April 10, 2001.
27White House, “Letter from Ambassador Prueher to Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs
Tang,” April 11, 2001.
coast and inaccurately implied that the two sides would hold “negotiations” over the
That morning in Washington, President Bush confirmed the agreement for the
detained crew to leave “promptly” and expressed sorrow for the loss of life of the
PLA pilot. Later that day, Bush visited the family of one of the 24 detained crew
members in North Carolina.29
On the morning of April 12, the 24 U.S. crew members finally flew out of Hainan
for the U.S. territory of Guam on a chartered U.S. airliner. The crew then flew on a
U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft to Hawaii to be debriefed at the U.S. Pacific Command
before returning to their families for Easter Sunday. Aboard the C-17, the EP-3’s
pilot, Navy Lieutenant Shane Osborn, spoke on the phone with Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld. The next day, Secretary Rumsfeld held a news conference and
reported that the EP-3 was on autopilot and flying straight and level, when the F-8
fighter hit the U.S. plane, and it plunged 5,000 to 8,000 feet before the crew got it
under control. The 24 crew members almost died. The EP-3 suffered damage to a
propeller, nose cone, and an engine, one engine was out, and an antenna was wrapped
around the tail. He also reported that the crew issued numerous Mayday calls about
the emergency landing, while the second F-8 fighter was close enough to know a
collision occurred and report to the PLAN unit on Hainan island, whose armed troops
met the U.S. plane after it safely landed.30 Finally, on April 14, the crew returned to
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station to a joyous homecoming full of yellow ribbons and
As noted in the U.S. letter, on April 18-19, 2001, the United States and the PRC
held a meeting to discuss the incident and return of the U.S. plane. However, the
PRC decided against using the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement as the basis
for the talks and ruled out a military-to-military meeting, with the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs leading the talks instead.31 The U.S. side was represented by the Pentagon,
with a delegation to Beijing led by Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy32
Support Peter Verga. The PRC did not agree to return the EP-3 at that time.
28“FM Tang Jiaxuan Receives U.S. Letter; PRC Decides to Allow Crew to Leave,” Xinhua,
April 11, 2001, in FBIS. PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, statement on Ambassador
Prueher’s letter in Chinese, April 11, 2001. China Daily printed the full letter in English.
29White House, “Remarks by President on Release of American Servicemen and Women in
China” and “Remarks by the President When Meeting the Parents of Petty Officer Third Class
Steven Blocher,” April 11, 2001.
30Department of Defense, Secretary Rumsfeld Briefs on EP-3E Collision,” April 13, 2001.
31Robbins, Carla Anne and Greg Jaffe, “Its Fliers Safe on U.S. Soil, Washington To Get
Tough with China in Meeting,” Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2001. Lu Shumin, head of the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of American and Oceanic Affairs, represented the
PRC (Xinhua, April 18, 2001, in FBIS).
32Chandler, Clay, “No Deal Reached on Plane,” Washington Post, April 20, 2001.
U.S. Interests After the Return of the Crew
After the return of the crew, the United States focused on maintaining the
interest of all countries to fly in international airspace, including near China. Bush
Administration officials say that the EP-3 was not “spying” on China; it was on an
overt reconnaissance mission, and the plane was unarmed, without fighter escorts.
They point out that aircraft of all countries have the right to fly in international
airspace, commonly recognized as 12 miles beyond the coast, a point obscured by the
PRC. They also say that the PRC itself has flown reconnaissance missions in
international airspace. China has at least one Yun-8 reconnaissance plane.33 Speakingth
after the crew’s release from China and ahead of the April 18 meeting, Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage listed the first U.S. priority as asserting to the
PRC the right of countries to fly in international airspace. Armitage stressed that “we
have a right. Six other countries in Asia, including [the PRC], fly reconnaissance
flights in international airspace.” Second, Armitage stressed that the United States
seeks the return of its EP-3 plane. “Our point of view is that it is an $80 million
aircraft, it’s ours, and that the Chinese have a responsibility to return it to us.” Third,
Armitage noted that the United States has an interest in a productive, positive
relationship with the PRC. He said, “I think we will want to see if there is a way we
can talk about the recent problems we have had in a non-polemical setting, to try to
make sure we don’t conflict in the future.”34
Update on the EP-3's Recovery and Payment Issue
After the EP-3 crew’s safe return, the United States and China negotiated the
return of the U.S. plane. With PRC cooperation, U.S. technicians from Lockheed
Martin, manufacturer of EP-3Es, arrived on Hainan to assess the damaged aircraft on
May 1. After the U.S. military on May 7 resumed reconnaissance flights off China’s
coast (with an Air Force RC-135), the PRC declared that it would not allow the EP-3
to fly home on its own. However, the Pentagon said on May 15 that the EP-3 is
“definitely repairable to be flown” and that would be the United States’ preferred
option as the “simplest, fastest, and least expensive way” to recover the plane. Still,
on May 29, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing announced an agreement whereby the EP-3
would be disassembled and transported back to the United States on a large Russian
AN-124 cargo plane.35
On June 13, the U.S. Pacific Command announced that it began operations to
recover the damaged EP-3 aircraft from Hainan Island. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
Company had the contract to disassemble and ship the plane, having chartered an AN-
Tailwind International. (A Pentagon spokesman said on July 3 that the cost of
Lockheed Martin’s contract to disassemble and recover the EP-3 was up to $5.8
33Karniol, Robert, “China’s Sigint Capabilities Exposed,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, April 11,
34Interview on the “News Hour” with Jim Lehrer, April 13, 2001.
35Eckholm, Erik, “Spy Plane Will Return to U.S. in Pieces as Cargo,” New York Times, May
million, with additional costs to reassemble and repair the plane.) U.S. technicians on
Hainan cut off the EP-3's tail section from the fuselage, four engines, wings, and other
parts, and the Russian crew flew several flights with salvaged parts to Kadena Air
Force Base in Japan. Ahead of the scheduled completion date of July 11, the AN-124
transported the EP-3's fuselage out of China on July 3, stopped in Manila, Philippines,
Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and arrived at Dobbins Air Force Base, Georgia, on
July 5, according to a briefing by the Pacific Air Forces of the U.S. Pacific36
Command. Also, U.S. officials reported that they dealt with PLA officers from
Beijing, not local officers at Lingshui on Hainan, showing the centralized nature of
critical decision-making in China.
There was a remaining issue over payment for costs involved in the incident.
Vice President Cheney had told Fox News Sunday on April 29 that the United States
was prepared to pay only for legitimate costs associated with recovering the EP-3,
such as transportation costs. According to the Pacific Air Forces briefing, the PRC
tried but could not run up the bill, and the runway at Lingshui airfield “already had
existing defects.” On June 30, the PRC billed the United States about $1 million for
what U.S. officials called “highly exaggerated” charges, including expenses associated
with the detention of the U.S. crew.37 (On July 17, Congressman Lantos introduced
H.R. 2507 to prohibit payment to the PRC for costs for the crew’s detention or the
aircraft’s return, until the PRC first reimburses the United States for our costs. On
July 18, Representative DeLay offered an amendment to the FY2002 Commerce,
Justice, and State Appropriations Act (H.R. 2500), prohibiting the use of funds to
negotiate or pay the PRC for costs associated with the crew’s detention or the EP-3's
return.) While confirming that the PRC had asked for about $1 million, on August
9, the Department of Defense announced that it “independently” arrived at a “fair
figure for services rendered and assistance in taking care of the aircrew and some of
the materials and contracts, and whatnot, to remove the EP-3 itself” and was sending
the “non-negotiable” amount to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The amount of
$34,567, fell far short of China’s demands, and the country rejected the money as
36U.S. Pacific Command. See also: [http://www.pacom.mil/ep3.htm]; Pacific Air Forces,
briefing slides by Ross Higa, “EP-3 Recovery,” July/August 2001.
37Sipress, Alan and Thomas Ricks, “China Bills U.S. Over Collision,” Washington Post, July
38Mufson, Steven, “U.S. to Pay China $34,567 For Costs of Downed Plane,” Washington
Post, August 10, 2001; Xinhua, August 11, 2001.
Assessments of the Collision Incident
The incident prompted a number of assessments about the PRC leadership and
its various claims about the aircraft involved and the collision.
PRC Leadership and Decision-making39
The incident raised questions about the hardline, non-cooperative approach of
the PRC leadership from the beginning of the standoff, including the unreasonable
detention of the U.S. crew for 11 days and the EP-3 for longer. Some say that China
took positions in an expected way for countries to react, taking advantage of a
situation to further its national interest. Still, the incident prompted a range of
assessments of Beijing’s decision-making and calculations, including the following
interpretations. Of course, PRC leaders faced complicated decisions, likely affected
by more than one consideration, and their interactions remain largely secret.
Strategy to Push Back U.S. Presence. One explanation stresses that the
PRC position was based on its national security strategy, including uniting Taiwan
with the mainland and asserting its role in the region to counter U.S. influence.40 This
strategy seeks to push the PLA’s defensive line further out to sea while pushing back
the U.S. military presence in Asia, complicate U.S. calculations (particularly in a
Taiwan scenario), weaken U.S.-led alliances (especially that with Japan), and assert
Beijing as a “big country” with a say in the region. In this school of thought, the fact
that the EP-3 flew out of the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, on an intelligence
mission makes the incident particularly objectionable to PRC leaders, who also feel
strong historical hostility to Japan.41 Washington and Beijing also have very different
world views, especially with China’s claims to “historical territory,” like the South
China Sea. Beijing’s strategy is to try to gain some greater measure of control in the
region, and this incident presented an opportunity to try to set rules favorable to
China. Still, many doubt that the PLAN pilot deliberately caused the collision.
Best Defense Is a Good Offense. Another explanation emphasizes that
PRC leaders may well have known that the collision was precipitated by PLA actions
over several months leading up to the incident. Wang Wei, the PLA pilot whose42
fighter collided into the EP-3 was already known to U.S. pilots as a risk-taking pilot.
At his April 13 news conference, Secretary Rumsfeld showed a video from a January
24 interception by the same F-8 fighter that later hit the EP-3 on April 1. In the
video, the fighter is shown flying as close as 20 feet away and having difficulty
39Written by Shirley Kan, Specialist in National Security Policy.
40Pomfret, John, “In Beijing’s Moves, A Strategy on Taiwan,” Washington Post, April 6,
2001; Bruce Gilley and David Murphy, “Power Play in Hainan,” Far Eastern Economic
Review, April 19, 2001.
41The Jiefangjun Bao (Liberation Army Daily) noted the “strategic significance” of Kadena
in a April 11, 2001 article: “PRC: Strategic Significance of U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa
Viewed,” in FBIS.
42Myers, Steven Lee and Christopher Drew, “U.S. Aides Say Chinese Pilot Reveled in Risk,”
New York Times, April 6, 2001.
maintaining airspeed. Even if they did not direct the aggressive intercepts, Beijing
leaders knew about them from the formal U.S. protest of December 28, 2000,
confirmed by Rumsfeld. Moreover, the Pentagon reported that aggressive
interceptions of U.S. aircraft occurred to the south of China, but not to the east of
China, specifying the problem as involving the PLAN unit on Hainan.43
The second PLA pilot who witnessed the collision may have reported it as
caused by Wang Wei’s flying too close, as an accident, or as caused by the EP-3.
Nonetheless, his PLAN unit, the PLA command, and PRC leaders may have feared
an American backlash for almost killing 24 U.S. crew members and downing the U.S.
plane. In its first official statement of April 4 about the incident, the Ministry of
National Defense (MND) – only a shell for dealing with foreigners while the Central
Military Commission (CMC) commands the PLA – sought to defend the actions of
the F-8 fighters, saying that “it is entirely justified and in line with international law
for Chinese fighter jets to track and monitor” U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Thus, in
this view, the PRC, faced with a mishap about which the United States had warned,
seemed intent on defending the PLA’s interceptions with an accusation against the
PLA in Command. There are those who point to power struggles and policy
differences between military and civilian leaders. One line of reasoning in this school
believes that the PLA tried to cover up its own mistakes (including dangerous
maneuvers by its pilot who caused the accident, damaged a U.S. aircraft, and almost
killed 24 U.S. personnel) and deliberately provided false information to the civilian
leaders, including President Jiang.44 Based on this view, Jiang and other top leaders
were muddled and confused, and may have miscalculated in making accusations
against the Americans and holding the 24 crew members for 11 days on Hainan.
A second line of reasoning in this school views the PLA as increasingly
influential in pressuring civilian leaders, such as Jiang, into more hardline approaches
toward the United States and even playing a “pivotal” role in the PRC’s foreign
policy, particularly on questions like Taiwan and national security. According to this
view, the PLA presented an obstacle to a smoother and speedier diplomatic resolution
in this incident, as shown by some harsh articles appearing in the Liberation Army
Daily during the crisis.45
However, available indications are that, throughout the incident, President Jiang
(who is also CMC Chairman), Vice Premier Qian, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
were in the lead, while top PLA officers followed in stance with no more
inflammatory rhetoric and were slow in making appearances. Still, the PLA is likely
to benefit from the incident, with the chance to inspect the EP-3 and another anti-
43Department of Defense, news briefing, April 17, 2001.
44Lilley, James and Arthur Waldron, “The U.S. Owes No Apology to the Chinese,” Wall
Street Journal, April 5, 2001.
45Hutzler, Charles, “China’s Slimmed-Down Military Takes the Lead in Foreign Affairs,”
Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2001; “China’s Generals” (editorial), New York Times, April
American rallying point. This incident and other international tensions may well show
that the Beijing leadership is more generally united with hardline views on issues of
national security and sovereignty, especially on Taiwan.
One early indicator was that Jiang felt sufficiently secure in his standing and
ability to made critical decisions that he departed Beijing as scheduled for Latin
America on April 4 for a 13-day trip. Second, as Secretary of State Powell revealed,
the PRC government wanted to handle the incident through the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs.46 Moreover, the follow-up meeting in Beijing on April 18-19 to discuss the
incident was ultimately not handled on the basis of the 1998 PLA-Pentagon Military
Maritime Consultative Agreement, and the PRC side was led by the MFA, not the
PLA, even as the Department of Defense represented the United States.
Third, although it was a military incident, the PRC’s MND first issued a
statement on April 4 (to condemn the incident and express concern for the lost PLAN
pilot, identified as Wang Wei), well after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President
Jiang presented the official PRC positions.47 Moreover, the MND’s statement did not
demand that the United States apologize or stop the reconnaissance flights.48 The
MND did not directly challenge the right of the U.S. aircraft to fly where it was
intercepted, noting that “U.S. military surveillance planes have made frequent spy
flights in the sea areas close to China for many years” and the two F-8s took off to
conduct “routine” tracking of the U.S. plane. The MND also charged the U.S.
aircraft as entering “Chinese territorial airspace without approval” only when it made
its landing on Hainan Island.
Finally, it was not until the morning of April 7 that a top PLA leader took a
public position on the incident. PRC media reported that Central Military
Commission (CMC) Vice Chairman and Minister of National Defense, General Chi
Haotian, visited the lost PLAN pilot’s wife and the second pilot in the incident, as
“commissioned” by Jiang. While also blaming the United States, Chi did not demand
that the United States apologize and stop the reconnaissance flights. Moreover, PRC
television news that day reported Chi’s visit to Wang Wei’s wife and Vice Premier
Qian’s letter of reply to Secretary Powell at the same time.49 Later, on April 8,
General Chi stated his position, calling for the United States to “apologize” and “take
effective measures to prevent similar incidents,” without explicitly demanding a stop50
to those flights.
46CBS, “Face the Nation,” April 8, 2001.
47In contrast, it was Admiral Dennis Blair, CINCPAC, who made the first public statements
for the United States from Hawaii on April 1, 2001.
48“PRC Defense Ministry Spokesman Condemns US Over Plane Collision” and “Chinese
Defense Ministry Spokesman Provides Details of Plane Collision,” Xinhua, April 4, 2001, in
49“Chi Haotian Meets Wang Wei’s Wife, Blames U.S. for Collision,” Xinhua, April 7, 2001,
in FBIS. “Beijing CCTV-1 Coverage of Plane Incident in 2200-2400 GMT Programs on
April 7,” FBIS.
50 “Chi Haotian Says ‘U.S. Should Apologize For Plane Incident’ When Meeting Brazil’s
Meanwhile, General Zhang Wannian, another CMC vice chairman, went on a
visit to Australia and New Zealand that started on March 29. During a meeting in
Canberra on April 3, in response to Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s
calls for a quick resolution to the “tragic accident,” General Zhang reportedly assured
him that the PRC would grant consular access to the detained U.S. crew and that the
matter would be resolved diplomatically.51 However, PRC media reports on Zhang’s
visit did not mention those assurances. PRC media did not report General Zhang as
making remarks on the incident until April 9, from Wellington, and Zhang just
reiterated Jiang’s views, including the call for an apology.52
Premier Zhu Rongji, often cited as an accommodating leader favoring ties to the
West, apparently did not feel the need to make a public statement until April 12, after
the United States sent its letter, and the PRC agreed to release the crew.53
Domestic Politics. Some stress that internal power struggles shape the
decisions of leaders, especially Jiang Zemin as he tries to elevate his proteges ahead
of the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress in late 2002 and hold onto power
(perhaps by remaining as CMC Chairman past 2002). One observer stressed,
“internationalist” leaders in Beijing struggled against those with “reflexive nationalist
instincts.”54 PRC politics today also result in relatively weak, insecure leaders (unlike
Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping) and a Communist system seeking shields against
charges of ineptness. This school of thought asserts that U.S. policy has an interest
in supporting “moderate” leaders, such as President Jiang and Premier Zhu, who favor
better relations with the United States, even as they are forced to take hardline
positions for domestic reasons.55
Nationalistic Public Opinion. Another school of thought believes that56
stronger nationalism has narrowed the maneuvering room of PRC leaders. Anti-
American nationalism – genuine sentiments that are not simply manipulated by the
government – has increased among PRC citizens since the early 1990s. But the PRC
Counterpart,” Xinhua, April 8, 2001, in FBIS. Jiefangjun Bao [Liberation Army Daily],
April 9, 2001, also carried a Xinhua report. Chi used the word “daoqian” for “apology.”
51“Downer’s Diplomatic Effort to Help Resolve the Crisis,” Australian Financial Review,
April 4, 2001; “Australia’s Downer Says Chinese General Promising Consular Access to U.S.
Air Crew,” Melbourne Radio Australia, April 3, 2001, in FBIS.
52“PRC General Zhang Wannian Says U.S. Should Apologize to China,” Xinhua, April 9,
53“Zhu Rongji Meets UN General Assembly President, Says Plane Case ‘Not Concluded’,”
Xinhua, April 12, 2001.
54Samuel Berger (President Clinton’s national security adviser), “Lessons from a Standoff,”
Washington Post, April 13, 2001.
55Pomfret, John, “Jiang Caught in Middle of Standoff,” Washington Post, April 8, 2001.
56Rosenthal, Elisabeth, “News Analysis: Many Voices for Beijing,” New York Times, April
April 13, 2001.
leadership decided on the hardline stance at the beginning of this incident and
presented its version to its citizens, not in response to citizens. In contrast to the
incident in May 1999 (after NATO forces mistakenly bombed the PRC embassy in
Belgrade, Yugoslavia), when the PRC Government condoned, if not fueled, violent
attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities in China, the leadership this time censored
inflammatory condemnations from discussions on the Internet and controlled the
government-owned media, and there were no fierce demonstrations.57
Political Culture. Some theorize that differences in political cultures
explained the standoff.58 While the United States sought business-like interaction and
quick resolution, the PRC reacted with a victim mentality, moral indignation, and
accusations to extract an apology, using the formal word “daoqian.” (Beijing also
demands apologies from Japan for suffering during World War II.) The PRC
leadership tried to preserve “face” and cannot be seen as wrong by its people.
According to this school of thought, leaders in Beijing take international
disagreements as personal affronts, prefer private, personal deals, and seek to set
principles before practical diplomacy. However, it was notable that throughout this
incident, the PRC government preferred to work with the Americans through normal
diplomatic channels – although not as promptly as Washington and other countries
wanted – and both sides tried to buttress their positions with respective legal
arguments. Also, Deputy Secretary of State Armitage disclosed that early U.S.
efforts to resolve the incident quickly through behind-the-scenes phone calls at a high
level were unsuccessful. Armitage said, “it seems to be the case that when very, very
difficult issues arise, it is sometimes hard to get the Chinese to answer the phone.”
He added that “we worked it out over time.”59
Reactions to U.S. Positions. Some say that, early in this incident, Admiral
Blair’s press conference and President Bush’s use of public, formal statements from
the White House shaped the PRC’s firm stance, including a response from President
Jiang’s level and escalations in rhetoric. Nonetheless, Admiral Blair was responding
to the PRC’s first assertions about the collision. Some speculate that, alternatively,
more private, personal communication, perhaps with the “hotline” set up by the
Clinton White House, may have allowed a quiet deal sooner.60
57Pomfret, John, “New Nationalism Drives Beijing,” Washington Post, April 4, 2001.
58Mufson, Steven and Mike Allen, “U.S. Seeks to Avoid a Test of Wills,” Washington Post,
April 4, 2001; Steven Mufson, “Apology or Regret: Not Just Wordplay,” Washington Post,
April 6, 2001; Fox Butterfield, “China’s Demand for Apology Is Rooted in Tradition,” New
York Times, April 7, 2001; Robin Wright, “For U.S. and China, The Looking Glass Yields
Disparate Views of Accident,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2001.
59Interview with Jim Lehrer, April 13, 2001.
60Sanger, David, “Powell Sees No Need for Apology; Bush Again Urges Return of Crew,”
New York Times, April 4, 2001.
The PLA’s Pattern of Aggressive Interceptions61
U.S. officials believe that while the immediate cause of the collision was an
accidental contact made by the F-8 fighter, the collision was also precipitated by
increased aggressiveness in the PLA’s interceptions of U.S. aircraft in international
airspace. According to the Pentagon, the PLA began its recent pattern of aggressive
interceptions of U.S. reconnaissance flights in December 2000. At his news
conference on April 13, 2001, Secretary Rumsfeld revealed that, since December,
there were 44 PLA interceptions of U.S. reconnaissance flights off the coast of China,
with six coming within 30 feet, and two within 10 feet, occurring on December 17 and
19, 2000, January 24 and 30, 2001, March 21 and April 1. He also reported that the
United States lodged a formal protest about the aggressive and dangerous
interceptions on December 28, 2000. He showed a video taken aboard one of the
U.S. reconnaissance planes on January 24 showing a F-8 flying very close.
Before that time, there were interceptions that the Pentagon characterized as
common and numerous. The U.S. military has flown reconnaissance missions around
the world, including along China’s coast for the past five decades, and has expected62
interceptions in international airspace. About one year before this incident, on April
27, 2000, the Pentagon confirmed that two PLA F-8 fighters approached a U.S. Air
Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the South China
Sea. The Pentagon’s spokesperson said that the interception was “not at all unusual”
and non-threatening toward the U.S. plane, with the F-8 fighters at a “considerable
distance” (“several kilometers”) away. He also reported that the PLA “often” flew
aircraft out to look at U.S. aircraft carriers or other ships passing through
international waters near China, including the South China Sea.63 There have also
been encounters at sea, reportedly including an incident on March 24, 2001, in the
Yellow Sea near South Korea, in which a PLAN Jianghu III-class frigate passed as
close as 100 yards to the U.S. surveillance ship, USS Bowditch, and a PLA
reconnaissance plane shadowed it.64
The problem raises the question of why the PRC stepped up interceptions of
U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. One possible explanation is that the PRC retaliated for
the defection to the United States of PLA Senior Colonel Xu Junping, who closely
handled Sino-U.S. military relations and apparently presented a major intelligence loss
for the PLA.65 However, the pattern of aggressive interceptions of U.S. aircraft began
61Written by Shirley Kan, Specialist in National Security Policy.
62Mann, Jim, “Encounters Routine for U.S. Patrol Missions,” Los Angeles Times, April 2,
63Department of Defense, news briefing, April 27, 2000.
64Gertz, Bill, “U.S. Spy Plane Lands in China After Collision,” Washington Times, April 2,
65Xu’s defection was first publicly reported by Taiwan’s United Daily News on March 20,
2001. See FBIS, “Taiwan Paper Reports PLA Defector’s Secrets Cause US’ Harder China
Policy,” Hong Kong iMail, March 21, 2001.
in mid-December 2000, before Xu’s defection, which reportedly occurred in New
York at the end of that month.66
Another explanation is that the PLA flew close interceptions in response to
increases in U.S. reconnaissance flights. One report said that tensions had been
building for almost a year before the collision, when the U.S. military increased flights
in the second half of 2000, with flights 4-5 times a week about 50 miles off China’s67
coast. Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and the
Pacific from 1995 to 2000, wrote that “the United States has stepped up
reconnaissance flights along China’s coast.”68 Still, the Pentagon stressed that the EP-
3 involved in the collision was on a routine mission, missions that U.S. planes have
flown for decades.
A third explanation is that individual PLAN units, like the one on Hainan, or
pilots, like Wang Wei, took risks on their own in “Top Gun” style. Wang was already
known to U.S. pilots as a reckless fighter pilot, there are pictures of previous close
intercepts by the same F-8 fighter that crashed, and the Pentagon reported that
aggressive interceptions of U.S. aircraft occurred to the south of China, but not to the
east of China.69 It is clear, however, that leaders in Beijing at least knew about the
problem, certainly through the U.S. protest in December 2000, if not before.
66Lawrence, Susan V. and David Murphy, “China-U.S. Ties: War By Other Means,” Far
Eastern Economic Review, April 5, 2001.
67Ricks, Thomas, “Anger Over Flights Grew in Past Year,” Washington Post, April 7, 2001.
68Campbell, Kurt M., “Old Game, New Risks,” Washington Post, April 8, 2001.
69Secretary of Defense news briefing, April 13, 2001; Department of Defense, news briefing,
April 17, 2001.
U.S. and PRC Military Aircraft70
Pictures of EP-3E and F-8II Aircraft
(not to scale)
EP-3 Maritime Reconnaissance Plane. The EP-3E Aries is a maritime
reconnaissance and signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft derived from P-3 Orion
aircraft. The P-3 Orion is a long range, land-based anti-submarine warfare (ASW)
patrol aircraft. The P-3 airframe is designed primarily for range and endurance. The
EP-3E is equipped with sensitive receivers and antennas to capture a wide range of
electronic emissions. The plane has a maximum speed of about 400 mph. An EP-3E
mission flight profile would by typified by slow, level speed to maximize fuel. The EP-
F-8 Fighter. The F-8 “Finback” is a two engine, single seat air superiority
fighter with a secondary ground attack role. The F-8 was designed in the 1960s and
built in the late 1970s. An improved version, the F-8II, was introduced in 1996 with
more powerful engines, improved avionics, and a modernized cockpit. The F-8II
airframe is designed primarily for speed (maximum speed of Mach 2.2), and displays
modest maneuverability for fighter aircraft.71 It has been compared in appearance and
aeronautical performance to the U.S. F-4 Phantom, a 1960s era aircraft.
Y-8 Airborne Surveillance Capabilities. Bush Administration officials
have pointed out that the PRC is one of the countries that conducts reconnaissance
flights in Asia. China is developing its own maritime surveillance aircraft, the Y-8X,
which is based on the Russian An-12B transport aircraft. The Y-8X/An-12 is a
70Written by Christopher Bolkcom, Analyst in National Defense.
71For instance, the F-16 Falcon can sustain 9 +G turns compared to the F-8II’s 6.9 +G limit.
medium range aircraft powered by four turboprop engines. The Y-8X has been under
development since 1984. It is designed to carry communications, navigation, radar,
surveillance and search equipment in a large radome located on the aircraft’s chin.
Comparison of Selected Capabilities of EP-3E and F-872
First FlightApril 1961 (P-3 variant)July 1969 (F-8)
March 31, 1996 (F-8II)
Wing Span99 feet, 6 inches30 feet
Length105 feet, 11 inches70 feet, 10 inches
Height34 feet, 3 inches17 feet, 9 inches
Engines4 Turboprop engines2 Turbojets
Max. Speed<350 nmi (402 mph, 648Mach 2.2 (approximately
kmph)1,450 mph, 2,340 kmph)
Maneuverability2.5 +G limit 6.9 +G limit
Range<2,380 nmi (2,738.9 mi)432 nmi (800 km, 497 mi)
max rangecombat radius
Ceiling28,300 feet (8,625.859,060 feet (18,000
ArmamentNone- Internal cannon
- 6 under wing hard points
Fuel tanks, bombs,
- Typically armed with
AA-12 Adder and AA-10
MissionSignals intelligence andInterceptor
72Sources: U.S. Navy Fact File, EP-3E Aries; Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 1997-1998
and 2000-2001; Federation of American Scientists; World Military and Civil Aircraft
Briefing, Teal Group Inc., Forecast International/DMS Military Aircraft Forecast; USN
Office of Legislative Affairs; International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military
Cause of the Collision and Flying Maneuvers73
The PRC government has asserted that blame for the accident lies solely with the
American pilot whom it claims initiated an aggressive turn into the intercepting
fighter. According to the statement of the surviving PLA pilot, Zhao Yu, he and the
mishap pilot, Wang Wei, were flying “in parallel” and “about 400 meters away from”
the EP-3 “at the same speed” when the EP-3 “abruptly veered” toward the mishap
PLA fighter “making it impossible for Wang to avoid the collision.” The surviving
pilot alleges the EP-3’s nose and left wing “bumped into Wang’s jet, and the propeller
on the EP-3’s left wing smashed the jet’s vertical tail into pieces.”74
The U.S. account of the accident places blame squarely on the PLA pilot. Based
on reports from the mishap EP-3 crew, the PLA pilot collided with the EP-3 as it was
lumbering along on autopilot at 207 miles an hour on a straight and level path. The
collision occurred on the third pass by the PLA fighter. On a previous pass, the PLA
fighter passed within an estimated three to five feet of the aircraft. According to one
crewman, Lt. Patrick C. Honeck, the PLA pilot saluted the American crew on his first
pass, and “mouthed something to us” on the second.75 On the third pass, the PLA F-8
fighter struck the EP-3’s left outboard propeller as it flew by and subsequently
impacted the EP-3’s radome, shattering it. Debris from this contact was then blown
into the propellers of two more engines, severely damaging them and sending shards
of metal through the fuselage.76 The F-8 sustained catastrophic damage, reportedly
broke in half, and crashed into the sea, presumably killing the pilot.
By U.S. accounts, the PLA pilots violated standard intercept conventions and
the longstanding principle that collision avoidance responsibility lies with the more
maneuverable intercepting aircraft. Intercept provisions outlined in the International
Flight Information Manual call for intercepting aircraft to maintain at least 500 feet
while exchanging signals with their targets.77 Moreover, the manual cautions that a
fighter pair must use “every precaution to avoid startling intercepted aircrew or
passengers, constantly keeping in mind that maneuvers considered normal to a fighter
aircraft may be considered hazardous to passengers and crews of non-fighter aircraft.”
Finally, the manual directs fighter-interceptors to cautiously withdraw from the
aircraft’s vicinity. “The element leader breaks gently away from the intercepted
aircraft in shallow dive to pick up speed. The wingman stays well clear of the
intercepted aircraft and joins the leader.” 78
73Written by Robert Chapman, National Defense Fellow (U.S. Air Force).
74“2d Pilot Discusses Collision of US, Chinese Planes,” FBIS Transcribed Text of Xinhua
news release, April 6, 2001.
75Janofsky, Michael, “Navy Crew’s Ordeal Of Terror And Tedium,” New York Times, April
76Department of Defense, “Secretary Rumsfeld Briefs on EP-3 Collision,” April 13, 2001.
77Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), International Flight Information Manual, General
Information, Section 5, International Interception Procedures.
78FAA, International Flight Information Manual, General Information, Section 6, Intercept
The PRC’s account of the incident seems implausible for a number of reasons.
First, PLA pilots have a history of harassing EP-3 crews with high-speed fly-bys at
close range. According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “in recent months
there have been 44 PLA interceptions of U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance flights
off the coast of China. Six of these were within 30 feet; two were within 10 feet.”79
Photographs taken by other EP-3 crews indicate that the PLA mishap pilot, Wang
Wei, had closed to within 10 feet of American EP-3s on previously intercepts. In one
photo, he was seen displaying his e-mail address to the American crew. In December
and again in January, the American government lodged formal protests with the PRC
citing safety concerns regarding actions taken by PLA pilots. On several occasions,
PLA pilots had overtaken EP-3 aircraft from the stern at high speed, passing80
underneath and abruptly pulling up in front of the American aircraft at close range.
The practice, known in some pilot circles as “thumping” is essentially an aerial tweak,
intended to cause consternation to the victim as he is suddenly confronted with the
noise, jet wash, and the jet in unexpectedly close proximity. Second, a jet fighter,
even one of limited maneuverability, shadowing a slow, propeller driven aircraft 400
meters (1300 feet) away should have easily been able to avoid a conflict with it.
Finally, given recent U.S. concerns over previous close intercepts by PLA fighters,
it is highly unlikely that the EP-3 pilot would risked his life and that of his crew by
aggressively maneuvering his unarmed plane into the flight path of an intercepting
It appears that on the mishap occasion, the PLA pilot, executing a close pass in
an apparent attempt to impress or intimidate the EP-3 crew, made a fatal error in
judgment. Several factors may have contributed to the collision. First, since the stall
speed of the PLA fighter is much higher than the EP-3, the PLA fighter pilot would
have experienced significantly reduced control authority operating at or near the
relatively slow speed of an EP-3. Second, it is possible the mishap fighter
encountered air flow disturbances caused by his wingman’s jetwash or boundary layer
airflow of the EP-3. Flying imprudently close to the EP-3, the PLA fighter may not
have had the control authority to avert collision. Weather does not appear to have
been a factor; according to the surviving PLA pilot, “There were few clouds in the
sky, and visibility was over ten kilometers.”81
Selected Issues Under International Law82
The collision of a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft with a PLA jet fighter over the
South China Sea, the subsequent landing of the U.S. plane in PRC territory, and the
detention of the crew have raised a number of legal questions. Among the questions
Pattern for Identification of Transport Aircraft.
79Department of Defense, “Secretary Rumsfeld Briefs on EP-3 Collision,” April 13, 2001.
80Myers, Steven Lee and Christopher Drew, “U.S. Aides Say Chinese Pilot Reveled in Risk,”
New York Times, April 6, 2001.
81“2nd Pilot Discusses Collision of U.S., Chinese Planes,” Xinhua, April 6, 2001, FBIS.
82Written by David Ackerman, Legislative Attorney.
are whether the U.S. aircraft had a right under international law to be where it was
when the collision occurred, whether it had a legal right to enter China’s airspace and
land on Hainan Island after the collision, whether the U.S. aircraft is immune under
international law from entry and examination by PRC officials, and the nature of
China’s obligation to allow U.S. officials access to the crew.83
International conventions concerning aviation and the law of the sea make clear
that all nations have full sovereignty over their airspace, including the airspace over
their territorial seas (a belt of sea that can extend up to 12 miles from the coast), and
that government aircraft of foreign states generally have no right to enter that airspace
without permission. International law also is clear, however, that all aircraft have a
right of overflight with respect to ocean areas beyond the territorial sea. That
includes a right of overflight in another nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) (a
belt of sea that can extend up to 200 miles from the coast). Given that the United
States and China seem to agree that the collision took place about 70 miles away from
China’s coast, the right of the U.S. aircraft to be flying in that area does not appear
to be in serious doubt. China contends, however, that the performance of
reconnaissance in its EEZ constitutes an abuse of the right of overflight.
Moreover, notwithstanding China’s sovereignty over its airspace and the general
principle that foreign state aircraft cannot enter such airspace without its
authorization, international law appears to give aircraft in distress a right to enter
another nation’s airspace and to land on its territory. This right does not appear
specifically to be set forth in any international treaty but exists by analogy to the right
of ships in distress to enter national waters and the duty of states to render assistance
to such ships. It also derives from what have been termed “elementary considerations
Whether state aircraft in distress are immune from entry and examination upon
landing in a foreign state appears uncertain, however. Under the law of the sea,
warships on the high seas are completely immune from the jurisdiction of any state
other than their own. Even if a warship is involved in a collision on the high seas (as
opposed to a collision while in port or a territorial sea), it is not subject to arrest or
detention even for purposes of investigation except by its flag state. Moreover, while
ships generally do not have any right of access to a state’s ports or internal waters,
a ship in distress, including a warship, is generally entitled to enter foreign ports; and
it does not ordinarily lose its immunity by doing so. The argument by analogy, thus,
is that a state aircraft involved in a collision over the high seas retains its immunity
from the jurisdiction of the foreign state in which it lands for reasons of distress, even
for purposes of investigation. That this principle may not be firmly established in
international law, however, is suggested by the conclusion of one respected
commentator that in such circumstances “the territorial sovereign ... is entitled to
conduct a full investigation into the circumstances of the intrusion, to inspect and
search the aircraft and its contents, and to search and question its occupants.”
83For a more thorough treatment of these issues, see CRS, Collision of U.S. and Chinese
Aircraft: Selected Legal Considerations (RS 20876).
The right of U.S. officials to have access to the crew of the surveillance aircraft
seems guaranteed by two conventions on consular relations. The multilateral Vienna
Convention on Consular Relations, to which both the U.S. and China are Parties,
mandates that a Party inform consular officials “without delay” if a national of their
state “is arrested or committed to prison or to custody pending trial or is detained in
any other manner.” It further requires that such officials be allowed to visit the
detained national.84 But these obligations are triggered only if the detained national
requests that his or her consular officials be so informed. The bilateral Convention
on Consular Relations between the U.S. and China is more specific and does not
depend upon a request by the detained national. Under the terms of that Convention,
China is obligated to give notice to U.S. consular authorities of the arrest or detention
of any U.S. national no later than four days from the date of the arrest or detention.
The Convention further gives consular authorities the right to visit arrested or
detained nationals no later than two days after official notice of the arrest or detention
and at least monthly thereafter. Neither convention, of course, prevents notice from
being given more quickly or access from being given more frequently.
Implications for U.S. Policy
The incident raises short- and long-term implications for policy regarding China,
arms sales to Taiwan, trade with the PRC, intelligence, maritime surveillance, and
relations with some allies in Asia as well as Russia.
Policy toward Beijing85
This incident is the third in a series of major troubling difficulties in recent years
that could have serious implications for U.S.-China relations. The first was the 1995-
96 Taiwan Strait crisis, when China conducted live-fire missile exercises off the coast
of Taiwan to which the United States responded by dispatching two carrier battle
groups. The second was the accidental NATO bombing and destruction of the PRC
Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three PRC journalists and inflaming anti-
American passions. These three incidents also have occurred against a steady
drumbeat of other security-related issues in recent years that have helped raise mutual
tensions. Amid allegations of PRC nuclear espionage in the United States and
evidence of a substantial military build-up on the southern coast opposite Taiwan,
both sides in recent years have released military assessment reports on each other’s
capabilities and intentions that reflect increased mutual suspicion.86
84Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, supra, Art. 36(1)(b).
85Written by Kerry Dumbaugh, Specialist in Asian Affairs.
86 In February 1999, the Pentagon issued a congressionally mandated report describing the
military balance in the Taiwan Strait as tipping away from Taiwan and decidedly in China’s
favor by the year 2005; in October 2000, China published a national security white paper
declaring there are “new negative developments in the security situation” in Asia, attributing
these developments to the U.S. presence in Asia and to “encroachments on China’s
sovereignty” in the South China Sea.
The nature of the incident has prompted widespread speculation about its longer-
term implications for U.S.-China relations and for the U.S. view of China. Many
observers believe that the heart of the tensions ultimately concerns the status of the
island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of China. PRC officials in recent years
have been increasingly critical of U.S. policy toward Taiwan, as well as increasingly
vocal in insisting on China’s right to use force against Taiwan. PRC military officials
also have begun to object more strongly to routine U.S. navy reconnaissance flights
over the South China Sea, since they presume that a primary function of those flights
is to monitor China’s systematic military build-up along its southern coast. But U.S.
policymakers, particularly some Members of Congress, likewise have grown
increasingly more assertive in defending Taiwan’s interests against what they see as
a newly hostile China.
Meanwhile, most U.S. observers believe that U.S.-China relations, already in
trouble because of past crises, will suffer further as a result of the events of April
2001. China’s refusal to assume responsibility for the aggressive actions of its pilot
and its reluctance to return the U.S. reconnaissance plane puts extra pressure on U.S.
policymakers who have argued that the “engagement” policy of the past ten years is
a productive and appropriate approach toward China. Instead, some believe that the
Hainan confrontation bolsters the arguments of those in Congress and elsewhere who
for years have encouraged U.S. leaders to be less accommodating to Beijing. Rather
than trying to persuade Beijing of the advantages of international cooperation, this
group argues, the United States should keep military forces as a counterweight to
rising PRC power in Asia; remain firm in dealing with economic, arms proliferation,
and other disputes with China; and work closely with U.S. allies and friends along
China’s periphery in order to deal with future assertiveness or disruption from Beijing.
What is needed now, according to this group, is a reassessment of past U.S. policy
toward China in light of recent trends. At a minimum, the policy trends of the past
few years mean that China is likely to continue to challenge the U.S. presence and
U.S. interests in Asia. U.S. policy-makers will likely continue to face difficult choices
as they seek to balance U.S. prerogatives and priorities in Asia with China’s rising
military power and growing assertiveness.
China’s actions during the incident also are likely to reinforce broader
congressional concerns over the trends in China’s domestic and international behavior.
Members of Congress have been especially concerned in recent months over the arrest
and imprisonment of a number of ethnic Chinese scholars who were visiting China but
living and working in other countries. In the case of Ms. Gao Zhan, a permanent U.S.
resident and researcher at American University who has been publicly accused of
spying by Chinese officials, Congress is now considering legislation which would
make her a U.S. citizen.87 Congress also has passed resolutions calling for the United
States to introduce a resolution at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on
Human Rights to condemn China’s human rights practices (H. Res. 56 and S. Res. 22,88
respectively), and is considering several “sense-of-Congress” resolutions that China
87Private relief bills have been introduced for Gao Zhan in both the House (H.R. 1385) and
Senate (S. 702).
88According to a press release of April 19, 2001, from TibetNet, the U.S.-sponsored U.N.
should be denied its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, unless it makes substantial
human rights improvements.
Finally, the incident may affect congressional sentiments on other issues known
to be extremely sensitive to China. For instance, Taiwan requested that the United
States permit two imminent and high-profile visits: a May 21-22 stopover in New
York by Taiwan’s current President, Chen Shui-bian, on his way to visit South
America; and a May 2-4 trip to New York State by Taiwan’s former President, Lee
Teng-hui, to visit his alma mater, Cornell University.89 (Although the latter is now a
private citizen, it was the U.S. decision to allow Lee to visit Cornell in 1995 that led
ultimately to the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait.) In another sensitive visit, the
Dalai Lama is scheduled to visit the United States from May 8-27, 2001.
Arms Sales to Taiwan90
After the U.S. Defense Attache first gained access to the crew on April 3, 2001,
Secretary of State Powell stated that the two issues of the incident and arms sales to91
Taiwan would not be linked. Nonetheless, the detention of the U.S. crew for 11
days on Hainan could have affected the political climate in Washington as top
officials and the President decided on the list of arms sales to Taiwan (to be
announced at annual talks later in the same month on April 24).92 While some believe
that the United States should respond to the PRC’s actions by approving a robust
package of arms that includes Aegis-equipped destroyers, others said that U.S.-PRC
tensions need not be exacerbated unnecessarily. Still, the incident may not have major
impact on the Bush White House in ultimately deciding on the course it would have
taken regardless of the incident based on the Taiwan Relations Act and ongoing
studies of Taiwan’s military strengths and weaknesses. A longer-term question is
whether the process of deciding arms sales to Taiwan should deviate from intensive
decision-making only once a year (usually in April).93
resolution failed when the Commission supported a “no action” motion by China, passing it
89The Bush Administration announced that it would issue a visa to Lee (Washington Post,
April 20, 2001).
90Written by Shirley Kan, Specialist in National Security Policy.
91Department of State, “Press Conference at Truman Little White House,” April 3, 2001.
92The date of April 24 was disclosed at a Pentagon news briefing on April 17, 2001.
93See: CRS Reports RS20365, Taiwan: Annual Arms Sales Process, and RL30957, Taiwan:
Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990, by Shirley Kan.
Accession to the WTO and Normal Trade Relations94
This incident may have economic implications as well. China is currently
negotiating to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the
international agency that sets rules for most trade. Negotiations on China’s WTO
membership are being held on two fronts: multilateral negotiations in a Working
Party composed of all interested WTO members and bilateral negotiations between
China and individual WTO members. Currently at issue are the specific steps China
would be required to take to gain accession to the WTO.95 The United States and
China reached a bilateral WTO agreement on November 15, 1999, that would require
China, upon its accession to the WTO, to remove a wide variety of tariff and non-
tariff barriers on goods and services as well as restrictions on foreign direct
In order to ensure that the WTO agreements would apply between the United
States and China, once China joined the WTO, Congress passed legislation (H.R.
Currently, China’s normal trade relations (NTR) status must be renewed on an annual97
basis. H.R. 4444 (signed into law on October 10, 2000, P.L. 106-286) would grant
PNTR status to China upon its accession to the WTO as long as the President
certified that the terms of its accession were at least equivalent to the November 1999
U.S.-China trade agreement.
China must still conclude a bilateral agreements with Mexico (the last of the 37
WTO members that originally requested bilateral trade negotiations with China), and
must complete extensive talks with the WTO Working Party handling its application
on how to bring its trade regime in compliance with WTO rules, before a vote on
China’s accession can be taken in the WTO. The WTO Working Party last met in
January 2001, and reportedly made some progress, although a final agreement was
not reached. A number of important issues must still be resolved, including certain
non-tariff barriers, licensing procedures, transparency, industrial and agricultural
subsidies, and trading rights
94Written by Wayne Morrison, Specialist in International Trade and Finance.
95The Working Party focuses on the general rules and principles of the applicant’s protocol:
it seeks to ensure that the applicant will accept the normal obligations and responsibilities of
WTO membership and sets schedules for complying with various WTO agreements. The
bilateral meetings, on the other hand, focus on tariff concessions and other market access
issues that will govern bilateral trade relations after the applicant becomes a member, and will
apply on a most-favored-nation (MFN), or non-discriminatory basis to all other WTO
96 The Clinton Administration and various legal experts argued that, without such a change
in law, the United States would (prior to China’s admission) be forced to invoke Article XIII
in the WTO, the non-application clause. Article XIII can be invoked by either a current WTO
member or an acceding WTO member if either member does not consent to the application
of WTO agreements to each other (such as the granting of “unconditional” NTR status).
97By law, China is subject to the requirements of the the Jackson-Vanik Amendment (Section
If China does not gain WTO accession by June 2001 (which seems highly
unlikely), President Bush will need to issue a waiver (under the Jackson-Vanik
amendment) in order to continue China’s NTR status for an additional year. This
action could be subject to a congressional vote to disapprove the waiver (which
would, if enacted, terminate China’s NTR status).98 Alternatively, Congress might
consider other legislative vehicles that would either terminate China’s NTR status or
add additional conditions to the continuation of that status.99 Although past
congressional efforts to terminate or add additional conditions to China’s NTR status
have failed, Congress has used the NTR renewal process as a focal point to debate (as
well as influence) U.S. policy towards China.
It is unclear how the military aircraft collision incident will affect U.S.-China
commercial ties. Certain incidents in the past led to short-term disruptions in U.S.-
China economic relations, but appear to have had little impact on over the long run.
For example, the PRC government’s Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989 led
the United States to impose limited economic sanctions against China, while Congress
threatened to terminate China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) status. Strained Sino-
U.S. ties contributed to a decline in U.S. investment in, and exports to, China: the
value of U.S. contracted FDI in China dropped from $641 million in 1989 to $358
million in 1991, while U.S. exports to China fell from $5.8 billion to $4.8 billion (U.S.
imports from China appear to have been relatively unaffected).100 However, in 1992,
U.S. contracted FDI surged to $3.1 billion and exports grew to $6.3 billion.
Similarly, following the accidental NATO bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade
on May 7, 1999, China suspended negotiations with the United States relating to its
application to join the WTO (as well as its implementation of an April 1999 U.S.-
China bilateral agreement relating to the removal of PRC technical barriers on U.S.
wheat, citrus, and beef exports to China). U.S.-China WTO negotiations were
officially resumed on September 11, 1999, during a meeting between President
98A withdrawal of China’s NTR status would result in a substantial increase in the applicable
rates and amounts of customs duties assessed on most U.S. imports from China. Imports
from China would be assessed tariffs according to “Column 2" non-NTR rates of duty in the
U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS), which are generally significantly higher (up to 10-
fold in some instances) than those under “Column 1-General” NTR treatment. These higher
tariffs would likely result in higher prices for U.S. consumers of the affected items and
subsequently a decrease in U.S. imports of various PRC products and substitution of products
from other countries. (See CRS report RL30225, Most-Favored-Nation Status of the
People’s Republic of China, by Vladimir N. Pregelj).
99For example, Representative Hunter has introduced a bill (H.R. 1467) that would terminate
China’s NTR status.
100Another major contributing factor to reduced U.S.-China investment and trade ties was a
retrenchment by the PRC central government of economic reforms. For example, the
government imposed a number of new restrictions on imports in order to improve its balance
of trade. Government imposed austerity measures also diminished the demand for imports.
In addition, the government and sought to limit domestic and foreign investment in order to
ease inflationary pressures. These measures were largely removed by 1992 after the central
government decided to resume economic reform policies.
Clinton and PRC President Jiang Zemin in New Zealand, and a bilateral WTO
agreement was reached two months later.101
Despite ups and downs in U.S.-China political relations, many policymakers
believe that economic ties have continued to expand, mainly because such ties serve
the interests of both nations.102 However, an escalation of tensions between China
and the United States could damage bilateral economic ties. For example, a further
worsening of political ties could negatively affect the business climate in China for
U.S. firms, disrupt negotiations over China’s WTO accession, and result in the
imposition of economic sanctions by both nations against one another.
Implications. Behind the landing of the EP-3 on Hainan Island lies a long
history of dangerous airborne surveillance missions. Since the mid-1940s, the United
States has sent reconnaissance aircraft to gather intelligence on military and civilian
activities relevant to the nation’s security interests; during the Cold War, missions
along the borders of communist-bloc countries provided intelligence long before
satellites became available. A few missions even crossed over Soviet airspace to
gather imagery of bomber and missile bases in striking range of the U.S. mainland.
According to a public statement of the Defense Department, during the years
1945-1977, a total of more than 40 reconnaissance aircraft were shot down. In
addition to losses in the Vietnam War, U.S. planes were shot down by the Soviet
Union, Communist China, North Korea, and Eastern European countries. In many
cases, crew members died as a result of armed attack; some were rescued by friendly
forces; some were actually returned to U.S. authorities by the attacking countries.104
There were seaborne reconnaissance missions as well, two of which came under
hostile fire; the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea in January 1968, and the
USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli forces in June 1967.
101China also resumed its implementation of the April 1999 agriculture agreement, although
the USTR’s 2001 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers indicates that
China has failed to fully comply with the agreement.
102There has been significant disagreement among U.S. policymakers over this issue, however.
Some Members have called for the United States to use economic sanctions to punish China
for human rights abuses, weapons proliferation, threats against Taiwan, unfair trade barriers,
and other PRC policies of concern to Congress. Other Members have supported a policy of
engagement with China, arguing that increased economic relations with China, including U.S.
support of China’s WTO accession, will promote the sort of structural political and economic
reforms in China sought by the United States. Still other policymakers have sought to
separate politics from business in U.S. international relations, arguing that political crises
require political solutions.
103Written by Richard Best, Specialist in National Defense.
104See “Cold War Reconnaissance and Shootdown of Flight 60528,”
[http://www.nsa.gov/display/c130/cold_war.html]; Robert L. Goldich, POWs and MIAs:
Status and Accounting Issues, CRS Issue Brief IB92101.
Attacks on U.S. military aircraft in international airspace or over foreign territory
have affected relations between the United States and the other countries involved
with the extent of damage usually dependent on the overall international atmosphere.
The most sensational attack was that on a U-2 flown over Soviet territory by an
employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, Francis Gary Powers, in May 1960. It
resulted in the breakup of an important four-power summit and acute embarrassment
to the Eisenhower Administration. Other losses of aircraft and personnel seem to
have been accepted as the hard, but necessary, cost of gathering information and
were not allowed to interfere with the pursuit of other foreign policy goals. With the
establishment in 1997 of the National Vigilance Park at Fort Meade, Maryland next
to the headquarters of the National Security Agency, the Federal Government has
recognized that many citizens paid the ultimate price to acquire the intelligence
deemed vital by Presidents.
Observers of the U.S. intelligence effort note that attacks by other countries have
affected the manner in which collection operations have been carried out. After the
capture of Powers, the United States did not send U-2 aircraft over the Soviet
landmass, but intelligence collection on the Soviet Union was accomplished by the
reconnaissance satellites that became available in the early 1960s. The capture of the
Pueblo was undoubtedly a factor in a subsequent decision not to dedicate individual
navy ships to SIGINT missions, relying instead on other approaches, including
Airborne reconnaissance remains, however, a vital component of intelligence
collection for military and other national security purposes. U-2s and other
surveillance aircraft such as the EP-3 are constantly deployed in areas of concern to
policymakers, especially in critical areas such as the Korean peninsula, Iraq, the
Balkans, the Middle East as well as the South China Sea. These aircraft obtain
imagery and signals intelligence in areas that are not consistently covered by satellites
whose orbits are generally fixed and whose time over any given point is limited.
Observers suggest that the primary mission of EP-3 flights over the South China Sea
is upgrading order-of-battle data about radars and communications links.
It has been widely noted that reconnaissance aircraft are “High Demand/Low
Density” platforms; there are inadequate numbers for the heavy use that is being made
of them. In recent years, considerable attention has been given to the development
of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as reconnaissance platforms, but existing UAVs
have relatively short ranges and limited loitering times. A more capable UAV, the
Global Hawk, is undergoing tests and evaluation. In March 2001 testimony to the
Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Dennis Blair, the Commander-in-Chief
of the Pacific Command, noted shortages in intelligence, surveillance, and
reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, including EP-3Es. Blair stated that although current
ISR assets are “adequate for routine operations in the Pacific Theater, we do not have
the surge capability to monitor crises or cyclical increases of potential adversary
Observers believe that technological innovations, including a new generation of
reconnaissance satellites and the introduction of long-range, high altitude UAVs may
reduce some of the requirements for manned surveillance aircraft. They note,
however, that it will be a number of years before these systems are operational and
the number of expensive UAV platforms is likely to remain limited. Many observers
believe that some types of data, especially from short-range transmitters, can be best
collected by manned platforms. Manned aircraft may also have advantages over
UAVs in maneuvering to obtain important data. Defense planners expect that
surveillance by manned aircraft will remain a necessity given the widespread nature
of U.S. national security interests.
Intelligence Loss. The need for emergency destruction procedures was
dramatically underscored when the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo in 1968
and acquired a large inventory of highly sensitive intelligence materials that the crew
had not had time to destroy. Since that time, intelligence planners have been acutely
aware of the need to limit the amount of classified information on ships and aircraft
assigned missions that could lead to capture. There is also far less reliance on paper
documents today than in 1968. Destruction devices have been installed and the crews
have received extensive training in emergency destruction procedures.
Defense Department spokesmen have stated that the EP-3 crew had about 15 to
20 minutes from the time of the incident until they made an emergency landing on
Hainan Island and some 20 minutes more on the ground before they left the aircraft.
According to the pilot, Lt. Osborn, the emergency destruction plan was activated
“well out, well offshore.” In his April 13th press conference, Defense Secretary
Rumsfeld noted that the crew “went through that [destruction] checklist and did an
excellent job of doing everything that was, I believe, possible in the period of time
they had.” Rumsfeld did not indicate that destruction of classified documents and
equipment was complete, noting only that the crew completed “a major portion” of
their checklist. Other Pentagon spokesmen have declined to provide additional details
of the extent of the destruction completed.
The PRC has investigated the EP-3 that landed on Hainan Island and may have
removed some electronic surveillance equipment. Although EP-3 aircraft have been
operational for many years, a recent major upgrade known as the Sensor System
Improvement added an array of new hardware and software to track, monitor, and
process targeted radar and communications signals. The new systems are designed
to collect a wider range of signals and to move data faster to sites where more
detailed analysis can be undertaken.105 Equipment is designed, according to media
accounts, with features by which software can be readily erased or “zeroized” in
If the PRC obtained intact surveillance devices, attempts at “reverse engineering”
could be made to create replicas for China’s own reconnaissance effort. This would
not be an easy or rapid process, however, even though much information about
surveillance equipment has been discussed in electronics trade publications.
Observers speculate that the chief benefit to the PRC from its inspection of the EP-3
would be to gather information about U.S. targets and degree of success that could
enable the PRC to prepare countermeasures, hindering future U.S. surveillance.
105See “EP-3E Communications, Automation Improved,” Aviation Week & Space
Technology, May 5, 1997, pp. 54-55.
Maritime Surveillance Operations106
The electronic surveillance mission being conducted by the Navy EP-3E Aries
II aircraft off the coast of China on April 1, 2001 was one component of a global U.S.
intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) effort directed at potentially
hostile military forces. This effort has been conducted by U.S. military forces on
virtually a daily basis for more than 50 years. In addition to the EP-3E, it includes
surveillance satellites, Air Force surveillance aircraft such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint
airplane, Navy surface ships, U.S. land-based electronic listening posts, and Navy
attack submarines. Although the existence of the U.S. electronic eavesdropping effort
has become public knowledge in recent years, the scope of the operation and the
number and variety of U.S. assets involved in it may be less widely known. One
recent press report states that the collision involving the EP-3
exposed more than the raw nerves of two wary giants. The drama of this aerial
collision underscores an important and little-known post-Cold War reality:
America’s surveillance network has grown so vast and formidable that in some
respects it is feared as much as U.S. weaponry itself. The EP-3E missions out of
Kadena Air Base in Japan are an important piece of this worldwide network. The
Kadena squadron has focused on China since 1993.... Like Air Force RC-135s
and Army Predator drones in other regions, the EP-3Es capture military and
government communications along the Chinese coastline and help assess the
sophistication of radar used by Chinese missile units, ships, and warplanes. The107
EP-3E is only one small component of the U.S. intelligence effort.
Electronic surveillance missions can be carried out to satisfy the intelligence
needs of a particular military service (such as the Navy), a joint-service regional U.S.
military command (such as the U.S. Pacific Command, or USPACOM), the
Department of Defense (DoD) in general, or some combination. Thus, while the EP-
for the Navy. If the EP-3E involved in the collision was conducting surveillance of
one or more PLAN surface combatants or submarines, as some press reports have
suggested, the primary intended user of the information being collected could have
been the Navy. If, on the other hand, the EP-3 was conducting surveillance of land-
based PLA air-defense systems, the primary intended user of the information being
collected could be USPACOM or DoD in general. It is also possible that the EP-3
mission that day involved surveillance of a combination of PLA forces both at sea and108
106Written by Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in National Defense.
107Moran, Michael. America’s Global Embrace: G.I. Joe is now Big Brother, and his eyes and
ears are everywhere. MSNBC.com electronic news story, April 6, 2001. Another press
report states that when flights of EP-3Es, RC-135s, and U-2 surveillance aircraft are
combined, “On any given day, there are more than a dozen ‘strategic’ reconnaissance flights,
supplemented by dozens of shorter range missions by tactical listening aircraft and
helicopters.” (Arkin, William M. Spying 24/7 365. Washingtonpost.com electronic news
story, April 9, 2001.)
108One recent press report states that a “Chinese military official and Americans familiar with
The primary objective of the U.S. electronic eavesdropping effort is to help
maintain as detailed and up-to-date an understanding as possible of the existence,
locations, numbers, and technical characteristics of radars and other electronically
transmitting military systems of potential adversaries, and a complementary
understanding of the operating patterns, doctrine, and tactics of these foreign military
forces. In peacetime, this information is useful in detecting and tracking evolutionary
changes in the capabilities of foreign military forces. In times of crisis, it can provide
advanced notice – so-called indication and warning (I&W) – of an impending foreign
military operation. And in times of conflict, it can be highly valuable in understanding
how to counter and defeat foreign military systems quickly and effectively. Indeed,
the success of U.S. military forces in combat operations can depend significantly on
information painstakingly collected over preceding years during U.S. electronic
The EP-3E Aries aircraft involved in the collision is one of 11 such aircraft in the
U.S. inventory. (A twelfth such aircraft was lost in an accident in 1997.) According
to one recent press report, U.S. regional military commanders value EP-3Es very
highly and have been pressing the Defense Department to increase the size of the EP-
operational demands being placed on it. On March 27, 2001, Admiral Dennis Blair,
Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), in testifying before
the Senate Armed Services Committee on the status of U.S. forces in the Pacific
Intelligence is essential to monitor potential adversary developments and
preparations so that we can train our forces for the threats that they face and move
them into a position in a timely fashion. Shortages of airborne intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets – U-2s, RC-135s, EP-3Es –
significantly impact USPACOM’s readiness ratings. These shortfalls diminish our
situational awareness, early indications and warning (I&W), and deep knowledge
of the capabilities, plans and intentions of key theaters in our area of
responsibility. Although Joint Staff-planned allocation of airborne reconnaissance
assets is adequate for routine operations in the Pacific Theater, we do not have the
surge capability to monitor crises or cyclical increases in potential adversary
activities. Other chronic shortfalls in high priority intelligence include linguists,
U.S. military operations agreed that the U.S. plane involved in Sunday’s collision was almost
certainly on a routine intelligence-gathering mission near Hainan island, where it made an
emergency landing. There might have been a small military exercise going on along the
southern Chinese coast, they said, but certainly there was nothing major. Experts from both
sides also dismissed news reports that the U.S. plane was focused on the operations of new
ships that China has acquired from Russia..... all those ships are based well north of Hainan,
the Chinese official said.” (Ricks, Thomas E. Anger Over Flights Grew in Past Year.
Washington Post, April 7, 2001: A1.)
109Gertz, Bill, and Rowan Scarborough. Inside the Ring. Washington Times, April 6, 2001.
(Item entitled “Aries in demand.”)
tactical signals intelligence (SIGINT) systems, intelligence specialists, and110
The incident involving the EP-3 and its aftermath has potential implications for
U.S. military surveillance operations in at least four areas: operational strain on the
EP-3E fleet, conditions for conducting airborne surveillance missions in the future,
the need for escorts or other protective forces, and using UAVs for airborne
EP-3E Fleet Operational Strain. The presence of the EP-3E on Hainan
Island in China has at least temporarily reduced the number of EP-3E aircraft available
to U.S. military commanders by 9 percent. As a result, the operational strain placed
on the remaining EP-3E aircraft and their crews could increase, and the possibility
that certain EP-3E surveillance missions will be “gapped” (i.e., not conducted) could
increase. This situation will persist until the EP-3E in question is either returned and
repaired or replaced by the acquisition of another EP-3E. A recent press report states
The loss of the EP-3E – which will be unavailable for operational use for the
foreseeable future – puts a strain on the already thinly stretched signals intelligence
community. Navy officials decided recently that they needed to replace an EP-3E
lost in an accident in 1997, and began modifying a P-3C into the [EP-3E]
intelligence configuration [of the aircraft]. But that aircraft won’t be available
until at least late 2002, forcing the small EP-3E community to absorb the
additional operational pace. It would take almost three years to field another EP-111
The United States can attempt to compensate for the reduction in the number of
available EP-3Es by relying more on other electronic surveillance aircraft or on
satellites, surface ships, or attack submarines. These assets, however, are also limited
in number and heavily committed, so relying on them more may simply shift the
operational strain from the EP-3E fleet to other U.S. surveillance forces. U.S.
electronic surveillance assets, moreover, are to a large degree complementary rather
than substitutable assets – they perform different aspects of the surveillance mission
and therefore might not be able to completely replace the surveillance capability
resident in the EP-3E. Satellites, for example, lack the EP-3E’s ability to focus on a
particular area continuously for several hours, while surface ships and attack
submarines lack the EP-3E’s ability to conduct surveillance at altitudes that permit
110Statement of Admiral Dennis C. Blair, U.S. Navy, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific
Command, Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on [the] Fiscal Year 2002 Posture
Statement, 27 March 2001, p. 53-54.
111Wall, Robert. New Intelligence Gear On China-Held EP-3E. Aviation Week & Space
Technology, April 9, 2001. Another press report states that the EP-3Es are “so busy that,
according to histories for the Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (the “World Watchers”),
aircraft stay in overseas bases like Bahrain, Okinawa, and Misawa, Japan, and the crews
come and go from their home base in Washington state.... In 1998, the latest year for which
records are available, each plane in the squadron flew a mission on average every other day,
365 days a year. (Arkin, William M. Spying 24/7 365. Washingtonpost.com electronic news
story, April 9, 2001.)
sensors to look longer distances over the horizon and deeper inland. One recent press
The basic role of the EP-3Es, said a retired Navy expert, is to “fill in the gaps” left
by the constellation of U.S. spy satellites that specialize in eavesdropping on
telephone and radio conversations and other electronic communications. Satellites
cannot be overhead all the time, and planes are useful for catching electronic
emissions from smaller military sites as well as from exercises timed to evade112
Another report states:
What airplanes could and can do, and satellites can’t, is monitor radio signals
(such as high frequency military communications), remain on station longer, and
get closer to allow better reception. But most important, what airplanes can do is
stimulate [a reaction from the other side]. Whereas a ground station or satellite is
a passive listener, aircraft create their own stimuli. The EP-3E flies a track south
of Chinese airspace, and radars are turned on, interceptors are scrambled,
communications networks are activated. Every flight is a potential intelligence
bonanza. “There is nothing like being the diagnostic irritant to collect
information,” says a military officer who is a specialist in intelligence and113
Conditions for Conducting Airborne Surveillance. If the resolution of
the current dispute between the United States and China results in new agreed-upon
procedures or understandings for how U.S. and PRC aircraft and ships should operate
when in proximity with one another, or for how U.S. airborne surveillance operations
are to be conducted in international airspace off China, the ability of the United States
to conduct such operations in the future could be either enhanced or degraded. On
the one hand, agreed-upon procedures or understandings that require PRC intercept
aircraft to maintain greater distances from U.S. surveillance aircraft, or to avoid
potentially dangerous maneuvers while in proximity to U.S. surveillance aircraft,
could (other things held equal) enhance the U.S. ability to conduct surveillance of
On the other hand, agreed-upon procedures or understandings that place de jure
or de facto restrictions or limits on the frequency, geographic areas, duration, or
altitudes U.S. airborne surveillance missions (or the distances that U.S. aircraft must
maintain from PRC ships) could degrade the U.S. ability to conduct airborne
surveillance of PLA forces. Restrictions or limits on surveillance operations near
China, moreover, could serve as a precedent for other countries to demand the same
restrictions or limits on U.S. surveillance operations in other regions of the world.
To compensate for any new limits or restrictions on airborne surveillance
operations, the United States could again attempt to compensate by relying more on
112Ricks, Thomas E. Anger Over Flights Grew In Past Year. Washington Post, April 7,
113 Arkin, William M. Spying 24/7 365. Washingtonpost.com electronic news story, April
satellites, surface ships, or attack submarines. This, however, would raise the same
issues discussed earlier concerning the limited numbers of these other assets and their
potential inability to perform, in all aspects, surveillance missions previously
performed by EP-3Es.
Potential Need for Escorts. Another potential issue arising out of the
collision is whether U.S. airborne surveillance aircraft operating in certain areas off
China will in the future need to be escorted by U.S. fighters or protected in some
other way by nearby U.S. military forces. If so, this could have potentially significant
implications for the U.S. military: Given the frequency of these operations (the United
States in recent years reportedly has conducted about 200 airborne electronic
surveillance missions per year off the PRC coast)114 and their duration (EP-3Es can
remain airborne for more than 12 hours per mission), providing such escorts or other
protection could require the repositioning of significant U.S. military forces, which
could affect U.S. military deployment patterns, operational tempo, and force-structure
requirements. It could also significantly increase the average number of U.S. military
forces operating in or near sea areas off China’s coast.
UAVs for Airborne Surveillance. A fourth potential issue for U.S. airborne
surveillance operations arising out of the collision and the subsequent detention of the
EP-3’s crew is whether the United States should expand or accelerate current efforts
to develop and procure long-range, long-duration UAVs such as the Global Hawk
UAV as potential substitutes for EP-3Es or other manned surveillance aircraft. The
Administration is reportedly already considering an expanded or accelerated UAV-
based ISR effort as part of its current review of U.S. defense policy and programs;115
the EP-3 incident might serve to underscore the potential advantages of UAVs as
platforms that can perform ISR missions without putting an air crew at risk of being
killed, injured, or taken into foreign custody. According to one press report, the
shooting down of a U.S. EC-121 surveillance aircraft by North Korea in 1968
114One recent press report states:
In the second half of last year, the U.S. military stepped up its reconnaissance
flights, sending planes four or five times a week about 50 miles off the Chinese
coast, according to a Chinese military official. He maintained that this was an
increase over the years 1997-1999, when the average had been about 200 flights
annually. The Chinese response has been to scramble jet fighters to intercept and
fly alongside about one of every three reconnaissance flights, a U.S. Navy official
said.... According to people familiar with his thinking, Adm. Dennis Blair, the U.S.
commander in the Pacific, has stepped up surveillance flights partly out of the
belief that they have a deterrent value: The more the United States knows about
how the Chinese military operates, the less likely the Chinese will be to think they
can subdue Taiwan with a lightning strike.... Most of the 200 or so flights a year
come out of the U.S. base at Kadena on the Japanese island of Okinawa, with
about three-quarters being Navy aircraft and the remainder Air Force RC-135s,
the Chinese official said. “Those are realistic figures,” said Derek Mitchell, a
former head of the Pentagon’s China desk. (Ricks, Thomas E. Anger Over
Flights Grew In past Year. Washington Post, April 7, 2001: A1.
115Butler, Amy. Rumsfeld’s Advisors Ponder ISR Program Acceleration. Inside the Air
Force, April 6, 2001.
prompted the development of UAVs that, for a time at least, performed at least some
surveillance missions previously performed by manned aircraft.116
Relations with Selected Asian Allies and Russia
While directly involving the United States, the incident also had profound
implications for U.S. allies in Asia and others, such as Russia, that may also fly
reconnaissance flights close to China and have interests in the standoff’s outcome.
Japan.117 Out of concern for not aggravating its relations with China, which
have been strained in recent years, and following long-standing practice, Japan has
adopted a low-profile stance on the incident. The issue is especially sensitive for
Japan since the EP-3E patrols originate at Kadena Air Base, on Okinawa, and because
of strong PRC criticism of various moves in the past several years to deepen U.S.-
Japan security cooperation. Generally speaking, official and unofficial Japanese
governmental comments have been more supportive of the U.S. position than, for
instance, the accidental bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 or the
1996 confrontation with China over its use of missile “tests” to seek to intimidate
Taiwan. At an April 10 press conference, the official spokesman of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs (MOFA) expressed support for a peaceful diplomatic settlement of
the situation. The spokesman refused to be drawn into a hypothetical discussion of
whether Japan would support the United States if the confrontation escalated, but also
116The report states:
On April 18, 1968, North Korea shot down an EC-121 monitoring plane similar
to the EP-3E, killing 31. President Nixon suspended manned flights and the
military scrambled to develop an unmanned platform to operate in sensitive areas.
The Combat Dawn intelligence drone was born flying a five-year stint of eight to
12 hour missions monitoring China and North Korea from 1970-1975. Combat
Dawn followed on the smaller, lower flying “lightening bug” drones, which
conducted overflights of China from 1964-1971. Even in those days of the real
Cold War, the drones had a fundamental difference from manned flight. “Several
[unmanned aerial vehicles] were shot down conducting actual overflights of China,
and it was in the news one day and out of the news the next day,” says a Pentagon
expert who recently completed a study on the history of unmanned craft. The
drone program ended, partly a result of lack of enthusiasm on the part of
“manned” collectors, but mostly because newly emerging satellites supplanted
Unmanned vehicles are hot again, given that manpower is often the most valuable
defense commodity, given miniaturization technologies and the continuing trend
of having to swing intelligence assets and focus from China today to Iraq
tomorrow to Yugoslavia or Indonesia or Sierra Leone the day after. “There are
long range plans to provide relief including better use of space and unmanned
vehicles,” Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters assured reconnaissance crews
when he visited Kadena Airbase in Okinawa last summer. (Arkin, William M.
Spying 24/7 365. Washingtonpost.com electronic news story, April 9, 2001.)
117Written by Richard Cronin, Specialist in Asian Affairs.
said that the flight that departed from Okinawa was “within the framework of the
U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.”
Japan’s response seems partly to have been influenced by timing, and partly by
underlying negative trends in Japan-China relations. The incident hit Japan in the
midst of a political crisis over intense competition within the ruling Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) to replace Prime Minister Yoshio Mori, Japan’s most
unpopular leader in recent memory, who has announced his resignation. As a
consequence of the preoccupation of Diet (parliament) members with political
jockeying and a sense of crisis over renewed indicators of financial and economic
instability, policy appears to be emanating from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and
the Japan Defense Agency (JDA), which have a huge stake in the U.S.-Japan alliance.
On April 6, the senior vice-minister of the JDA expressed “personal” view that
because of his understanding that the incident took place in international airspace, he
“[could not] fathom some aspects of China’s assertions.”118
The press also seems to view the situation less as a complication in Japan-China
relations than as a sobering reminder that China does not play by international rules,
and has greatly increased its military power and assertiveness in recent years. A major
national daily, the Sankei Shimbun, editorialized that the collision was a “wake-up call
for Japan,” in that it underscored “what a harsh military reality exists in the areas near
Japan.” The editorial chided the Bush Administration mildly for creating uneasiness
over its “untested approach to China,” but also noted that despite the rhetoric both119
sides appeared “to be practicing self-control.”
The incident also has provoked some practical concerns. For instance, the JDA
reportedly is highly concerned about the compromise of electronic equipment and
coding systems that it shares with the U.S. Navy and is evaluating the situation to see
if it needs to change both the codes and the equipment.120
This incident and other developments in regional relations suggest a number of
implications for Japan’s future security posture and U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation:
First, the Japanese government seems more concerned about PRC assertiveness
than about the deterioration of U.S.-China relations, possibly because of confidence
that the neither Washington nor China can allow the incident to irreparably damage
relations. Japan itself has shown greater willingness to confront China diplomatically
over issues such as PRC naval intrusions into waters claimed by Japan. Tokyo
recently delayed for several months a decision to provide the customary large-scale
loans to China, making clear its annoyance with the state of relations. The loan denial
was championed by influential LDP politicians.
Second, the incident appears to be viewed as yet another reminder that Japan
lives in a dangerous neighborhood and requires both the U.S. security umbrella and
118Nihon Keizai Shimbun, April 6, 2001, p. 2.
119editorial, Sankei Shimbun, April 5, 2001, p. 2.
120BBC (London), April 6, 2001 (From Kyodo News Service, Tokyo, April 6, 2001)
greater efforts to strengthen its own defense capabilities. Numerous press
commentators and editorialists have also called for drawing closer to the United
States. China, meanwhile, finds few supporters in Japan.
Less encouraging, recent negative developments in Japan’s relations with China
and South Korea could prove detrimental to U.S. interests. Both South Korea and
China have reacted strongly to the decision of the Education Ministry, which is
commonly viewed as a bastion of ultra-nationalist sentiment, to approve a new public
school textbook that glosses over atrocities committed by Japanese forces during
World War II and appears to offer a justification for Japanese wartime aggression.
South Korea has recalled its ambassador as a consequence. The stubborn refusal of
nationalistic Japanese political leaders and cultural officials to acknowledge Japan’s
depredations in World War II tends to make U.S.-Japan security cooperation appear
more threatening to China and tends to undercut U.S. efforts to promote closer
security cooperation among Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul.
South Korea.121 In public, South Korea assumed a low profile in the Hainan
Island incident; the government made no official statements during the episode. In
private, however, the South Korean ambassador to China conveyed to Beijing his
government’s desire that China return the EP-3 crew to the United States.122 In
general, Seoul has an ambivalent relationship with Beijing, anxious about the rise in
China’s military power, but also wary of aggravating tensions with Beijing, which
were established in 1992. South Korean policymakers are particularly concerned that
a major deterioration in U.S.-China relations could undermine President Kim Dae
Jung’s “sunshine policy” of engaging North Korea. Heightened U.S.-PRC tensions,
for instance, could jeopardize President Kim’s goal of restarting four party peace talks
among the principal combatants in the Korean War – South Korea, North Korea, the
U.S. and China. A decline in Washington-Beijing relations also could reduce the
South Korea’s flexibility in dealing with Pyongyang by reducing the likelihood of
South Korea-PRC-American cooperation – whether it is tacit or coordinated – over
policy toward North Korea. China is one of North Korea’s few remaining allies and
in recent years has encouraged North Korea to adopt many of the economic reforms
favored by President Kim.
The Philippines.123 Wary of antagonizing either side, the Philippines adopted
a “neutral” stance in this incident, with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stating
that “very seldom do other countries get involved when the elephants are pitted
121Written by Mark Manyin, Analyst in Asian Affairs. For more on South Korean-U.S.
relations, see Korea: U.S.-South Korean Relations – Issues for Congress, CRS Issue Brief
IB98045, by Larry Niksch.
122April 2001 conversation with South Korean diplomatic official. After the crew had been
released, South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo acknowledged that his government
had played a behind-the-scenes role in defusing the crisis, though he declined to provide
details, according to the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), April 20, 2001.
123Written by Mark Manyin, Analyst in Asian Affairs. For more on Filipino-U.S. relations,
see Philippine-U.S. Security Relations, CRS Report RS20697, by Larry Niksch.
against each other.”124 Since the mid-1990s, a Filipino-PRC dispute over islands in
the South China Sea has intensified, prompting Manila to pursue a hedging strategy
with China and the United States. On the one hand, the Philippines has tried to
persuade China to agree to a multilateral code of conduct that would prohibit any
claimant from seizing additional islands and atolls in the South China Sea. Manila has
been frustrated by the United States’ generally neutral stance in the dispute. On the
other hand, Manila has cautiously begun to revive its security relationship with
Washington, reversing a decline that had occurred since the United States withdrew
from military bases in the Philippines in 1992.
Australia.125 Worried about wider implications for other nations in the region,
Australia expressed concerns about the incident publicly and also directly to PLA
General Zhang Wannian who was on a visit to Canberra. Prime Minister John
Howard said that “I can understand the Americans wanting their aircraft and
personnel back without interference.” On April 3, 2001, Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer reportedly told General Zhang that Australia was concerned about the lost
PLA pilot and hoped the “tragic accident” can be resolved quickly, diplomatically, and
calmly. Australian leaders said that Zhang assured them about U.S. consular access
to the detained crew.126
Russia.127 The Russian Government and press maintained a relatively low-
keyed approach toward this incident. By April 11, there was little public Russian
government commentary on the incident. On April 4, Aleksandr Losyukov, the
Russian Foreign Ministry official who oversees policy toward East Asia, described the
aircraft collision as “regrettable” and an “accident” and expressed Moscow’s
confidence that the United States and China would find a way to resolve their
differences over the affair.128 An April 2 commentary on a Russian internet web site
run by a Kremlin insider (Strana.ru) linked the aircraft collision to the sinking of a
Japanese fishing ship by a U.S. nuclear submarine in February 2001 and blamed both
on aggressive U.S. intelligence gathering activities in the Pacific.129 A search of the
Russian central press, however, found only one article on the subject. That article130
speculated that the pilot of the F-8 was probably at fault in the collision. Russian
124 Birmingham Post, April 4, 2001.
125Written by Shirley Kan, Specialist in National Security Policy.
126Conversation with Australian diplomat, April 2001; “Australia Calls for Return of Spy
Plane,” Courier Mail (Brisbane), April 4, 2001; “Downer’s Diplomatic Effort to Help
Resolve the Crisis,” Australian Financial Review, April 4, 2001.
127Written by Stuart Goldman, Specialist in Russian Affairs.
128Jamestown Monitor, April 11, 2001.
130Ilya Kedrov, “Chinese Battering Ram. The Result – a Gift – an American Surveillance
Aircraft,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye [Moscow], April 6, 2001. This article can
be found translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) document no.
diplomats in Washington stated that Moscow officially treated this as a strictly
bilateral U.S.-China issue, “although privately, we support China.”131
Russia’s relatively restrained public response to the incident is surprising and
noteworthy for several reasons. U.S.-Russian relations have grown more strained in
recent years and, if anything, tension has increased since the elections of Presidents
Putin and Bush. In this atmosphere, Moscow regularly, and often sharply, criticizes
U.S. foreign and defense policies. The April 1 collision of the U.S. and PRC military
aircraft provided an easy target for anti-American propaganda – an opportunity that
Moscow seems to have passed up. This apparent restraint is all the more surprising
in view of the fact that one of Russia’s main national security strategies is to forge a
cooperative bond with China in opposition to alleged U.S. “global domination” and
“hegemonism.” Moscow and Beijing support one another’s positions vis-a-vis
Washington over such issues as Taiwan, Chechnya, Yugoslavia, NATO enlargement,
national missile defense, sanctions against Iraq – and stepped-up U.S. intelligence
gathering activities near their borders. Russian arms sales to China, including
advanced military aircraft, missile systems, warships, and submarines, are a key
element of their military cooperation. Russia and China are reportedly preparing to
sign a ten-year strategic friendship treaty this summer,132 which some observers warn
could be the harbinger of a strategic alliance directed, at least implicitly, against the
131Discussion with Russian diplomats, April 10, 2001.
132Various Russian and PRC sources, including Interfax, April 4, 2001.