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Sino-American crisis deepens

Sino-American crisis deepens

Author: Harvey Stockwin
Publication: The Times of India
Date: April 4, 2001

The delay in resolving the crisis over the crashed Chinese F-8 fighter and the US Navy's EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft, which made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island, may lead to further deterioration of Sino-American relations.

China has predictably adopted a hardline nationalist posture to which the Bush Administration is unlikely to respond, especially as China's demands are likely to provoke hardline opinion within the United States.

The crisis has steadily intensified ever since the EP-3E and the F-8 collided when two Chinese jets intercepted the US propeller-driven aircraft south of Hainan around 9 a.m. last Sunday, April 1.

After the collision, the damaged US aircraft made an emergency landing at the PLA Lingshui air base in southern Hainan. In the latest Chinese Foreign Ministry statement on the incident this landing has been termed "illegal" and "an infringement upon China's sovereignty over its territorial space".

The Americans claimed that the EP-3E aircraft was their sovereign territory and should not be boarded by the Chinese, a claim derided by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is now disclosed that the Chinese have been hard at work trying to learn as much as they can from the intelligence-gathering aircraft. The plane has been covered by a tarpaulin so that the Americans are no longer able to see what is actually happening to the plane from their satellites in space.

US President George Bush made a request for speedy access to the 24 members of the EP-3E on Monday evening following earlier such requests from the US Ambassador to China, Admiral Joseph Prueher. Eventually two US diplomats were able to see the crew under restricted conditions late Tuesday -- over 60 hours after the plane had landed.

The Chinese were much quicker in announcing what had happened during the interception, insisting from the start that all the blame lay with the slow US aircraft, which had veered into the faster F-8. The Americans remain highly sceptical of this explanation, pointing out that it was the F-8s that were doing the intercepting.

Photos released by the Chinese showing the nose of the EP-3E has been completely sheared off certainly suggest that the F-8 which crashed may have done the damage.

However the Chinese are insisting that the Americans "must bear full responsibility, apologise to China, and not seek any excuse to shirk its responsibility". The Americans, having been prevented from debriefing the plane's crew as to what actually happened, are obviously not likely to oblige.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin has echoed these demands in his reported remarks. Jiang, who left China on a visit to Latin America on Wednesday, has also demanded that all such American reconnaissance flights should cease.

Since the Americans claim these are routine flights through international airspace, they are most unlikely to comply.

So far, the Chinese have refrained from linking the EP-3E's flight to China's claim that the whole of the South China Sea is its territorial waters. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that the flight violated China's air rights over its exclusive economic zone, and "posed a serious threat to the security of China".

In his second brief comment on the crisis, President Bush refrained from justifications or rebuttals, but merely repeated that the US wanted the speedy return of the crew and the plane.

"This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries" Bush said.

Right now, all the signs suggest that the potential for gravely undermining Sino-American relations will be realised.
 


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