HONOLULU — The release of the crew of the American EP-3E reconnaissance plane from Chinese “protective custody” may have defused the crisis but hardly represents the end of this affair. Meetings are now under way between U.S. and Chinese officials to deal with the aftereffects. While both sides agree that much remains to be resolved, each sees the problem differently.
From a U.S. perspective, issue No. 1 is the return of the plane and its sophisticated intelligence-collection hardware, followed closely by Chinese agreement to abide by the “rules of the road” regarding intercept procedures against reconnaissance aircraft operating over international waters, to reduce the prospects of future incidents. Even before the accident, the United States had been complaining about increasingly aggressive Chinese intercept techniques (which appear to be the most probably direct cause of the April 1 midair collision). The U.S. would no doubt also like to reach some agreement with the Chinese over the cause of the accident but this appears impossible, given that Beijing has already anointed its ill-fated pilot, Wang Wei, as a “revolutionary martyr.” As a result, the prospect of China’s acknowledging that its pilot was even partially, much less principally, to blame seems remote.
Meanwhile, unless Beijing can release convincing evidence to the contrary, there is no reason not to believe the American pilot’s version of the story, which has the Chinese F-8 accidentally colliding with the EP-3E during its third close pass by the American plane, as the EP-3E was flying straight and level on autopilot. Even if the U.S. Navy plane had been making a turn, as the Chinese allege, this should not have been a problem unless the Chinese pilot was flying too close and behaving too aggressively.
The Chinese, who appear in no rush to return the damaged American aircraft, also have a much simpler and more direct solution to the problem of future incidents — they are demanding a complete halt to all American intelligence-collection flights against China (even though many other nations, including China, conduct similar missions). The U.S. is not likely to give up these routine surveillance missions, however, given the lack of military transparency that exists today in China. But this does not mean that a review of this U.S. practice is not in order. If it is true, as reported, that the U.S. now flies more than 400 reconnaissance missions a year against China — an average of over one per day — one should logically ask “why?”
I spent enough time in and around the intelligence community during my 26 years of military duty to understand the value of such missions. But my experience also causes me to question why so many flights are needed during peacetime, especially given the availability of less intrusive collection methods.
Then there is the question of prior notification, a procedure normally frowned upon by the U.S. military, both for operational-security reasons and out of fear that it could represent the first step down the slippery slope toward “prior approval,” a very different and (rightly) unacceptable precondition. The fact that a country has a right to fly surveillance missions over international waters adjacent to another country without prior notification does not preclude them from providing such notification as a military confidence-building measure, however. Recently, Beijing and Tokyo reached such an agreement pertaining to naval activity in disputed waters in and around one another’s exclusive economic zones. This could provide a useful model for Washington and Beijing to study, although such an agreement should apply to Chinese as well as American reconnaissance activities and should be part of a larger agreement that includes the return of the American plane and a halt to dangerous tactics by Chinese pilots. Developing a multilateral prior-notification regime for surface and air-reconnaissance missions, as well as for military exercises and so on, is a suitable task for the ASEAN Regional Forum to consider as well.
As was the case during the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Beijing has also used this incident to drum up anti-American sentiment. The U.S., in its own handling of this incident, must avoid playing into this Chinese game. Beijing’s leaders are rightly concerned about their own diminished mandate and about the growing fascination among younger Chinese for the Western (especially American) values and ideas permeating China via the Internet and through other channels. Highlighting instances of American arrogance or callousness toward the feelings of the Chinese people is a time-honored Chinese way of dealing with this phenomenon.
This brings me to the drive by several members of the U.S. Congress to work against China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics, a drive already under way before the incident but which has been further fueled by it. While there a hundred good reasons why China did not get the nod for the 2000 Games, ask anyone in China why and they will tell you that “America blocked China’s bid.” The amount of ill will generated by the previous congressional resolution to support Sydney over Beijing is impossible to measure but still readily apparent. It is simply not in America’s long-term interest to alienate the next generation in China through “feel-good” legislation that has little, if any, practical impact. In fact, given the low regard that most members of the international community hold for the U.S. Congress — a degree of disdain that inexplicably seems to be a source of pride to some in Congress — such resolutions are likely to gain China more votes than it costs it. But such actions still feed anti-American sentiment among the general population in China (and elsewhere) which would otherwise be generally prepared to work with America, if not emulate it.
As followup discussions proceed, both sides need to stop playing the blame game and focus on how to avoid such incidents in future. Washington, which always keeps a watchful eye on U.S. public opinion, also needs to avoid feeding the flames of anti-Americanism in China if it hopes to have a more stable relationship with the next generation of Chinese leaders.
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