Hainan incident: Foreign and domestic entanglements

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Hainan incident: Foreign and domestic entanglements

South China Sea near Hainan Island, Sunday morning, approximately 9:10 am local time.

Chinese version: An American spy plane is shadowed by two fighter jets. The American plane maneuvers abruptly and rams and downs one of the fighters. The US plane makes an unauthorized landing at Hainan Island's Lingzhui military airfield. "The US side has total responsibility for this event," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that it had made a "serious" protest and that, "The US plane abruptly diverted toward the Chinese planes, and its head and left wing collided with one of the Chinese planes, causing the Chinese plane to crash."

US version: An Okinawa-based US Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance plane (crew of 24) on a routine mission in international airspace is shadowed by two Chinese F-8 fighters, is bumped accidentally by one of the Chinese fighters, sustains damage to its nose cone and left wing and makes an emergency landing at Lingzhui. "It's pretty obvious who bumped who," said Admiral Dennis Blair, head of the US Pacific Command in Hawaii. He told reporters that the Chinese fighters, similar to US F-16s, fly much faster and have more maneuverability than the EP-3, which is about the size of a Boeing 737 and basically flies in a straight path.

Well, make up your own mind who's telling the truth. But if the Chinese Foreign Ministry is, it doesn't exactly speak well for the skillls of Chinese fighter pilots. The EP-3 is a lumbering, unarmed four-engine propeller-driven plane. For the American pilot to deliberately have downed the F-8 fighter would either be quite a feat or speak volumes about the PLA air arm's military preparedness. Watch out for a PLA version of the event "correcting" the Foreign Ministry's.

For any number of reasons, the Hainan incident comes at a most inopportune time. Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen has just concluded a Washington visit and met there with US President George W Bush. While the two leaders agreed to disagree on a variety of issues, both sides viewed the outcome as basically positive. But there are several present irritants in US-China relations - the arrest and detention of two US-related professors by mainland authorities, the ongoing 10-day Taiwan visit of the Dalai Lama, and most importantly, the possible sale of advanced US weapons systems to Taiwan - which in combination could lead to a serious deterioration in relations if the Hainan incident is mishandled by either side.

The potential for such mishandling is real enough based on respective domestic political considerations.

On the Chinese side, President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji, and Vice Premier Qian Qichen must exercise caution so as not to hand hardliners the argument that they are soft on the American aggressors - charges which could gain popular appeal and threaten orderly leadership transition. As Francesco Sisci writes in the accompanying analysis, the Beijing leaders cleverly appear to be dealing with the problem by declaring victory in Hainan: The US intruder plane was forced down.

On the US side, anti-China hardliners will push for the speediest return of the American crew and plane and take anything else as an argument for pushing for maximum weapons systems deliveries to Taiwan, accompanied by shrill human rights violations charges.

In light of these domestic political factors, speedy resolution of the Hainan incident would appear to be in the best interest of both sides. To all appearances, President Bush prior to the incident was aiming for a compromise on weapons sales to Taiwan: some advanced systems would be sold, but sale of the Aegis radar system would be postponed. From Beijing's standpoint, perfunctory protests aside, that would have been an acceptable deal. More broadly, neither Bush nor Jiang need foreign entanglements at this stage in their presidencies. Bush wants to concentrate on reinvigorating the US economy as without that he would be perceived as having failed in his key self-appointed task and be seen as a weak president with commensurate lack of clout in foreign affairs. Jiang as well has economic priorities and does not want his legacy threatened by a no-win confrontation with the US.

So, is early resolution of the Hainan affair in sight? As the incident itself demonstrates, accidents happen. Further hiccups should not be ruled out. But both sides' interests point toward deliberate efforts at damage control.

((c)2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 02, 2001


China holds the card - but how to play it? By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - Less than 24 hours after it took place, the risk of major fall-out from an American EP-3 surveillance plane landing in China following a collision with a Chinese jet appears to have come under some control.

Toning down previous inflammatory comments released on Sunday night by the Foreign Ministry, The People's Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party leadership, on Monday declared victory over the US over the incident, claiming that America feels it is in the wrong like "an ant over the fire".

Participants in a vocal Chinese Internet chatroom shared the People's Daily views, with one enthusiastically commenting: "The Americans want to try us? We let them try some spicy food!" A girl added that she wanted to marry the heroic People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers.

On their side, the Americans said from Honolulu that they expected the early release of the 24 crew members and the return of the aircraft. On the first issue, the Chinese have already indicated that the soldiers will be handed over, but no comment has been made on the fate of the craft. One web-chatter suggested returning it as an empty shell after the PLA had taken away all its modern equipment.

Other Chinese comments left further room for maneuver. The radio on Monday said the EP-3 was flying "near" Chinese air space, and the People's Daily added that the two F-8 fighters were following it to check on the American actions when it suddenly moved sideways. The Chinese protest will only be about the unauthorized landing of the EP- 3 on Chinese territory, state radio said on Monday morning. If this tone is compared with the mere complaint of the Americans about the "reciprocal safety" of the maneuvers of the Chinese planes in air, it appears that most of the dangers are small.

It is still unclear whether, and how, the incident could become a springboard to improve still unsteady Sino-US relations. The Chinese difficulties are two-fold. On the one hand, it has to feed on a nationalistic audience eager to see its government standing up to alleged US provocation, especially after the 1999 Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. If the public were to feel betrayed, it could turn against the government.

On the other hand, Beijing mustn't provoke the US, whose market and technology are essential to Chinese welfare and development.

First reactions on both sides indicate that both results are being achieved at the moment, although the issue will likely remain bubbling for a few days or perhaps weeks. The US administration has an easier task, since its public is not as belligerent as China's. The fate of the crew and of the super-secret aircraft is its major concern. If the crew were to become hostage of the Chinese it would put the new Bush administration in a corner.

The dangers should this happen are huge, as the experience of president Jimmy Carter in the 1970s in Iran proves. Then the mishandling of the kidnapping of US embassy personnel in Tehran ultimately brought down the Democrat Carter and ushered in 12 years of Republican administration. The 24 servicemen could become a new Iran, or worse, for President George W Bush.

Even without the servicemen, the aircraft in the Chinese hands could prove a treasure trove for the Chinese as its possession is possibly the single largest intelligence feat for the Chinese military in recent times - something that could become a major embarrassment for the US.

It is not clear what secrets the sophisticated US electronic surveillance capabilities of the EP-3 hold or what China can find out and reproduce. However, electronic intelligence is apparently one of the fields where China and the US are furthest apart, with the US reportedly decades ahead of China in electronic warfare. Thus the question is: How many years can Beijing leap ahead thanks to the EP- 3?

Despite the short-term risk assessment and practical solutions to the diplomatic row, as well as the expected future improvement of Sino-US relations, the long-term strategic impact could be overriding, and push new arms developments on the two sides of the Pacific.

((c)2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 02, 2001.

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