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U.S.-China Spy Plane Standoff

April 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: For more, we go to Winston Lord, who served as ambassador to China in the Reagan administration and Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. James Lilley was ambassador to China and Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration. David Shambaugh is a professor of political science at George Washington University and author of a forthcoming book, “Modernizing China’s Military.”

Wayne Madsen is a former navy intelligence officer. He is now senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group for privacy rights. Winston Lord, just a short time ago we heard from the president. He demanded the return of the personnel, the return of the plane and threatened some serious undermining of U.S.-China relations; what did you make of the president’s statement?

WINSTON LORD: Well, he certainly did ratchet it up and I think appropriately, given the lack of Chinese response so far. I would note that there was a distinction in his statement between the plane and the crew and in the second to last paragraph, he called for the return of both, as he should, but when he talked about possibly undermining relations, he linked that strictly to the return of servicemen and women. But clearly we moved a step closer to a crisis because of the Chinese position.

RAY SUAREZ: James Lilley, you agree?

JAMES LILLEY: Well, I think that’s true. I think Winston’s quite right, but I don’t think he made a demand; he said now was the time for our servicemen to come back. And I think the key paragraph is this accident has the potential for undermining our hopes for a fruitful or productive relationship between our two countries.

RAY SUAREZ: What does that mean?

JAMES LILLEY: I’m talking about China wants to join the Olympics, China wants to get into the WTO; China wants to curtail arm sales to Taiwan; China wants to get our planes let’s say to fly outside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone area. So China has got an agenda; he says you put these things in jeopardy if you push us too hard.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, how do you read it?

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: I think the American response has been quite measured and appropriate all the way along, very controlled. The Chinese response is, of course, what’s worrying. The absence of a response is extremely worrying. But I would note in their response today President Jiang Zemin also made an important distinction between the incident – the accident itself and the spying, the spy plane. This suggest to me that they wish to treat this as the accident in the air and the airmen rather than accuse them of espionage and have some kind of show trial. That is a relief to me because that was the worst case scenario that we had another Pueblo incident on our hands.

RAY SUAREZ: But what should we make of the fact that the attach to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing – a brigadier general visited the American personnel on Hainan and then left empty-handed?

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: Well, the fact he was given access is of course expected. It’s about 72 hours too late. But it’s the first step forward. I agree with Ambassador Lord in resolution of the crisis. But now both sides have demands of the other that each side is going to find very difficult to meet and now it’s time for the diplomats get to work and try and find some common language and face saving attempts to try and resolve the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ambassador Lilley, are these men and women prisoners?

JAMES LILLEY: No, I think they’re kept in a hostel; they’re kept separately; they’ve been interviewed by the Chinese separately. But I would say if you want to get into what the Chinese are looking at you read all the statements they’ve been making today, and they’re looking for four things basically. First of all, they want an explanation. It sounds just like the accidental bombing at Belgrade – explanation first, apology – pay and compensation and then pull back our planes outside the 200 economic zone. This is what they’re looking for.

Now, as David Shambaugh says, this is where you have to get your people to start negotiating. What will you settle for other than an apology? How do you handle compensation without admitting guilt? Can we rationalize their position on the 200-mile EEZ, with our concept of that — they have made a very long legal case on this, about the 200 economic zone being subject to their laws in the sense that they claim the whole South China Sea and they say, the law of the sea says if a plane flies through there, it has to respect Chinese laws. And of course with the Chinese implication is you are doing things in that area that was hostile to the Chinese, namely collecting intelligence on them. So it gets very convoluted. And I think we have the danger of sort of getting into a watering contest with an elephant.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me go to Ambassador Lord at this point. In the relationships between countries, what does saying you’re sorry really mean? It’s more than just saying you regret it; you wish it hadn’t happened.

WINSTON LORD: American officials again correctly have been back running; we’re not going to issue an apology. So if you mean by apology, Gee, we’re sorry, please forgive us, you can forget that. On the other hand, you can probably work out language that says it was an unfortunate incident or something like that, which we could perhaps use to resolve this. But if you look at the four points that Jim pointed and if it is I fact their agenda to release these crewmen, I’m not sure it is yet, then we have got a really serious problem.

In addition to the apology there is no way we’re going to agree to the 200-mile limit. Compensation is going to be difficult. And we’re not about to pull back on our reconnaissance flights. So I hope we can resolve it. I think the administration is handling it firmly but they’re trying to keep it under control and put it behind us. But we have got to do those four things somehow to get those servicemen back then we really do have a crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in addition to the statements from high administration officials, Wayne Madsen, we started to hear acknowledgements that the Chinese have probably been on the plane. Tell us what might be there for them to find.

WAYNE MADSEN: Well, what they would be looking for would be the systems, the intelligence systems, the console — each operator operates their own console. These consoles are directed at Chinese radar emissions, voice communications, so they’d trying to get some idea what kind of intelligence was being picked up by this aircraft. The other thing they would be looking for, and hopefully this would be the first thing that would be destroyed — would be the cryptographic keying material because if they got that, and in the emergency destruction that would have been the first priority.

So hopefully the comments we have heard about some of the information, some of the equipment was destroyed, that crypto keying material was the first to be destroyed, because that would be the normal procedure. Because if they got those keys, that means they could decode all past U.S. intelligence, military communications around the world not just in that area but in other places as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, help us understand a little better what this plane does. We keep hearing that it monitors various kinds of communications. Does it know what it’s looking for? Is it like one of those ocean-going vessels that just sucks up all the fish in a piece of ocean?

WAYNE MADSEN: No. Actually each operator has their own particular task. Some operators are… They have a list of known Chinese frequencies, radar frequencies, communications frequencies, et cetera. So the fact is that a couple of the people on board obviously were Chinese linguists, so they’re listening to voice communications, military voice on Hainan, other places that they passed on their way down to that region. So they would look for that type of information. Other operators on board would be looking for radar emissions, non-communications type intelligence.

So they would be tasked on that particular area. But in most cases they know what the known Chinese frequencies are – they would be keying in on those and the different systems would be looking at different things. Some systems would be looking at low bandwidth communications like walkie-talkie radio telephones – cell phones perhaps or a wide bandwidth intercept equipment would be looking for television, video transmissions, microwave, and things like that.

RAY SUAREZ: So when the word comes we’re going down – and this afternoon a Pentagon briefer led on that the plane was actually more damaged than anybody realized, lost two engines, a propeller sheared off, is there time to do the necessary prep work to get that down and get these things destroyed?

WAYNE MADSEN: There should be, because in an emergency destruction procedure they go through the high priority first. That means everybody on board is concentrating on getting rid of the cryptographic material. Once that’s done and that could be by, as we heard, the Pentagon spokesman state, zeroing out – erasing it – maybe even physically destroying the equipment and the printed circuit boards — after that’s done then they go to all that collection of data that probably is residing on hard disks — they would remove them.

First they would try to erase it, they would remove and try to physically damage those. Maybe they tossed them out of the airplane, because once they hit saltwater, of course, not only would it be hard to find the disk drives but if you found them, the saltwater would have done a number on them so they would be hard to try to extract any kind of readable data.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, given, Professor, the abilities of this plane, is that part of what’s contributing to the ferocity of the Chinese reaction here?

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: In part. But this crisis if you want to call it that, it may not really yet be a full-blown crisis — really takes place against the backdrop of Chinese and domestic Chinese politics. We have a regime that is trying to crack down on this movement – cannot get rid of it. You have an elite in a country that is undergoing a succession and indeed some evidence of struggle in that succession. You have a regime that’s very insecure. In fact, I suspect in the last 48 hours they’re keeping an eye on Milosevic’s fate in Yugoslavia just as much as they are on the case of Hainan Island.

So there is a lot of insecurity in the domestic political context not to mention anti-Americanism and rampant nationalism in the population at large stemming from the Belgrade bombing and other incidences that are feeding the context in which the leaders are making their decisions about how to deal with the case and it’s making it difficult for them to respond with a moderate-what we consider a moderate response.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the disposition of the plane and the fate of the crew now move on two tracks? You heard what Wayne Madsen said about the kinds of things they may have been listening to.

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: Again, I was encouraged in the distinction of the crew and the accident in the Chinese president’s comment today, but that gets back to the issue we were just talking about in terms of language and apologies and non-apologies. But I don’t think that we’re facing a Pueblo situation here. The plane looks clearly very damaged. American personnel are going to have to come in to repair and remove it. The crew itself of course has got to be released at the earliest possible date and we’re going to see what the quid pro quo for China is on that release.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Lord, when things are moving to a crescendo with more and more denunciations from the two sides, people digging their heels in, as a diplomat, how do you start to unbuild that, what steps need to be taken to start untying these very tight knots that have been tied in the last 72 hours?

WINSTON LORD: Well, first let me say I think David Shambaugh made the very important points about the domestic context of Chinese decision-making. Extremely tempting for some of them to use foreign devils and invoke nationalism to distract the populace on all kinds of things that have been happening, including blowing up of school children and bombing in the Northeast not to mention the other things he mentioned. One of the slightly encouraging elements so far is my understanding that the Chinese handling of their domestic audience has been restrained as opposed to when we bombed their embassy. In terms of the chat rooms they have been cutting off the most vicious diatribes against the U.S. Their press has played this rather low key by their standards. The decibel level from one to ten is about six. So in that sense they haven’t invoked their own populace.

Maybe they are worried about losing control; maybe they’re just debating what their final decision will be. So on their side there is still room here for restraint same as what the president has been doing. In fact, he gave them 72 hours as he mentioned in his statement to try to put this behind him quickly. Chinese blew their opportunity to gain goodwill by doing something say on access and releasing their crew in the first three or four days. Now we have two options. We’re not at a crisis yet, I want to make that clear. But if we have the kind of problems that Jim suggested, then we’re going to get to one. But we can still resolve this in a way and untangle it in terms of restraint and make this an annoyance but not a serious crisis for our overall relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Lilley, is there the possibility of wrapping this up in a short time rather than in a long one?

JAMES LILLEY: Well, I think that Winston and I share the experience at the early stages of the negotiation. It’s the rhetorical, gong banging, strutting stage of posturing. We go through that and establish your principal decision and lay out your principles. Then what you have to do is to get down to the short strokes. What have you got that I have and what have I got that you want and you then negotiate that. And you can always negotiate language. There is opening on whether this was an accident or deliberate. That can be worked out, it seems to me. Can you have an apology or express, as Winston suggests, some sort of regret for the loss or tragedy? You have got to work around this thing. Can you, for instance, take care of compensation by some good-hearted person giving the airman’s, dead airman’s family something? You have to work around this thing.

But the one area that is very difficult, I think, is the area of flying in the 200 economic zone. They’re after this one, they’ve made it a point in their statements; they’ve done it for a long time. They haven’t really raised the issue formally for us although they’ve complained. But this could be an issue they would stick on. But that should not prohibit our crew from leaving. This is a long-term issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you all.