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International Incident: U.S.-China Spy Plane Standoff

An international standoff continues over a U.S. spy plane grounded in China and its 24 crew members. Two U.S. defense experts discuss the situation.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    From President Bush on down, U.S. officials today urged Beijing to carry out its diplomatic responsibility and grant U.S. officials access to the 24 crew members from the grounded Navy spy plane now being held in China.

  • PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

    Our embassy officials are on the ground and prepared to visit the crew and aircraft as soon as the Chinese government allows them to do so. And I call on the Chinese government to grant this access promptly. Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    An hour later, U.S. officials, who have spent almost two full days demanding to see the crew, said a meeting could come tomorrow.

  • RICHARD BOUCHER, State Dept. Spokesperson:

    We've been told that they are safe. We want to talk directly to them. The Chinese have told us, late morning Washington time, they told us in Beijing, in the ambassadors meetings, that we will have access to our people tomorrow. It's already Tuesday in Beijing, so we'll see what happens. But, clearly, access… To tell us that we may have access tomorrow is not a complete response.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Beyond the crew, Washington is also concerned about the status of the aircraft, a state-of-the art eavesdropping machine that's part of the EP-3 class. The EP-3 can monitor activity on ships and planes and can pick up radio, radar, phone, e-mail and fax traffic as well. The U.S. ambassador in Beijing urged China to respect America's intelligence-gathering property.

    JOSEPH PRUEHER, U.S. Ambassador to China: Our aircraft itself also enjoys sovereign immune status. This immunity precludes foreign search, boarding or seizure, or detention of the aircraft without U.S. consent.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Over the weekend, the Navy surveillance plane took off from Kadena Field, a U.S. airbase on the Japanese island of Okinawa, beginning, what Washington calls a routine mission. Then as a pair of Chinese fighters tailed the U.S. plane about 80 miles south of the Chinese island of Hainan, the U.S. plane and one fighter jet collided. The Chinese jet crashed into the waters below, but the American plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese airbase on Hainan. It's still presumed to be sitting on the tarmac there. But some of the additional details are in dispute. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, the crash occurred over Chinese territorial waters and that the U.S. bears "total responsibility." In a statement, the Chinese government said, "The U.S. 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." The United States claims the Navy plane flew over international waters and the smaller aircraft should have avoided the crash.

  • ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR, U.S. Pacific Commander:

    Under international air space rules, the faster, more maneuverable aircraft has the obligation to stay out of the way of the slower aircraft. Our aircraft fly routinely straight and level. It is pretty obvious as to who bumped into whom.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    For more we turn to: Retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon was defense and Naval attaché to China from 1990 to 1992. He flew the same kind of EP-3 plane along the Soviet border during the Cold War. He is now a consultant. And Kurt Campbell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and the Pacific during the Clinton administration. He is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Admiral McVadon, what was that plane doing there? What is the mission of the EP-3 in those waters?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    Well, let me offer a minor correction first, I flew the P-3, which is a similar aircraft, off of the Soviet coast during those years for about 25 years. It was doing electronic surveillance, trying to learn what we can about Chinese radars and communications and so forth, so that we can better cope with those systems in the unfortunate situation if we ever have to. That's what it was up to.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    What is that plane equipped to listen to that is of value to the United States?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    To the radars, to air defense systems, to all sorts of communications things so that we would understand better how to cope with those systems and also the ability to analyze their communications traffic.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Are close encounters between the craft of the country being watched and the country doing the watching a customary part of this technique?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    Well, yes, it happens frequently. For quite a long time, the Chinese generally kept their distance, just coming out to identify the airplane. As Admiral Blair has pointed out, in recent weeks or maybe months the Chinese have become considerably more aggressive — might even use the word dangerous — in getting too close and seeming to act somewhat provocatively. So that has been a change in recent events.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    But it's understood on both sides, if you're doing this kind of surveillance work, you wouldn't necessarily react in a defensive manner if you are being closely watched by aircraft from another country?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    You would not be surprised to be intercepted. I had been intercepted many times. Of course these flights are rather routinely intercepted.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now, this part of the South China sea, Kurt Campbell, is an area that has been troubled, disputed recently?

  • KURT M. CAMPBELL:

    I think it is. The Chinese have claimed and in fact many of the countries in the region claim that area as part of the national territories. However, I would just say just going back to a previous point very quickly that the kind of competition that we saw during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States where we would send planes to test Soviet air defenses, I think there was almost a ritualized quality to those engagements. More recently as U.S. aircraft do more reconnaissance in Asia, because tensions are rising in Asia, I think, generally the Chinese have yet to really understand the nature of this sort of ritualized engagement. And I'm not sure they completely accept all aspects of it. I think — as the admiral indicated over the last several weeks — and in fact the last several months you've seen an increase in Chinese brazenness in terms of the manner in which these fighter aircraft come out to contest reconnaissance aircraft. Indeed there's been some diplomatic to and fro again until this point behind closed doors. If you had to say anything about the Bush administration –they've had basically nothing but bad luck since the beginning of the administration with the submarine coming up. This incident however had almost a quality that suggested it was almost inevitable.

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    Let me add quickly that we did lodge a protest about this more aggressive action by the Chinese airplanes.

  • KURT M. CAMPBELL:

    Yes.

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    As I understand it the reply has been characterized as rather unsatisfactory.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    But haven't the Chinese also demarched us, that is, made a formal protest about the way that we are watching their coastline?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    I'm not certain of that. I wouldn't be surprised.

  • KURT M. CAMPBELL:

    Yeah. In fact, I can add I think on top of that for many years now for at least the period that I was in the Defense Department — which was almost six years — on a relatively regular basis senior Chinese officials, beginning with the president on down, raised with visiting distinguished Americans concerns about these activities.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now you say that China, that there was a ritualized flavor to this with the Russians because they were used to it. Is this a signal that China is now being accorded a level of I don't know if respect is the right word but bears watching in a way that it hadn't in the past?

  • KURT M. CAMPBELL:

    I think it does. But I also think for Americans, we have to understand that we are actually at an extraordinarily delicate time. At the same time that we're trying to engage China politically and commercially, trying to create incentives for them to be a responsible player in the international arena, we are also militarily in some respects treating them as a potential adversary. And I think those kinds of mixed messages are both difficult for the United States but extraordinarily difficult for China. This is standard operational procedure for American military around the globe, not just here but elsewhere as well. But the Chinese, as their capabilities have grown, have shown a will and a desire to intercept these kinds of activities. I think we may resolve this specific issue but I think these kinds of activities are likely going to be a source of recurring tension between the United States and China in the months and years to come.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Admiral, continuing in that vein, talking about what is customary, when a plane of a foreign nation develops problems and lands… comes through your air space and lands on one of your strips, what does international law and common custom in these cases dictate?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    Well, of course, this is somewhat an unusual thing because the Chinese are blaming the incident on us. So they probably are not very sympathetic to look at it in the light that you've portrayed — but it would be to allow any aircraft to land in an emergency and then that aircraft retains its sovereignty. So we certainly should assert that claim strongly and continue to say that this was altogether an understandable action and that the Chinese have that obligation. And, remember, the shoe could be on the other foot. There could be a time when a Chinese airplane or ship is in some sort of hazardous situation and they certainly would not expect that we would board that ship or airplane and somehow incarcerate the crew or take some other action of that sort. So it might be prudent for Beijing to contemplate that aspect of it.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, what are the protocols for the American crew? Would it be a training procedure, something that they're taught to do if they're intelligence gatherers to quickly destroy what's on board so it's of less value?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    That is certainly my suspicion. Of course, I don't know precisely what that crew was directed to do or what the standard procedures were in detail. But there's certainly the expectation that carrying that sort of sensitive equipment that there would be procedures in order to disable it or destroy it so that it would not be useful. Remember, the incident occurred about 104 kilometers or 60 miles south of Hainan – south of the airport. That could have given them time. On the other hand you don't know all that was going on in the airplane, so we are quite uncertain of that. But it is certainly likely and of course many people have speculated that the important and sensitive equipment would have been destroyed.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    What's the value of what was on board if it was to fall into a foreign country's hands?

  • KURT M. CAMPBELL:

    You know, I think the Admiral would be better positioned to talk about sort of the technology per se. I think for most of what… We're much more worried about the strategic implications, about what it means for the two countries' relations. You don't have to be a great student of Chinese diplomacy to recognize if there's ever an incident like this, China always says it's the other guy's fault. I've never known a case in which China said, "well, gee, our fault, our mistake." Just standard procedure is to blame the other guy. But what's troubling is that the manner in which the plane was boarded, appears the crew was taken off, there are reports that perhaps they are being held individually. This has a ring of the Myagues (ph) crisis in some respects many, many years ago, and of course, at a time where both China and the United States are trying with the Taiwan arms escalations and other problems in the relationship to sort of manage a very careful course, this is exactly the wrong kind of atmospherics for our Chinese friends to be conducting. This I think will likely have fairly negative backlash in terms of American public opinion. If we don't get access to this plane in the next day or two, we will be truly in a real crisis that Beijing and Washington will have very difficult times climbing down from.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Does the fact that there is this delay in opening communication to the crew and access to the plane show that there's perhaps a difference of opinion in the highest reaches of the government? It's not like there's been a lot of communications between the United States and China during these past 36 hours.

  • KURT M. CAMPBELL:

    Again if you almost always look at early stages of a crisis involving China, the first steps are often ones of inaction in the sense not very much reported — at least internationally — and often sort of a harsh tone in terms of the rhetoric. My sense is that they are basically meeting around the clock in Beijing. One of the things that we think we understand about China's decision-making is that they don't operate very well unless there's an absolute consensus. You can be sure that there are hard-line elements within the People's Liberation Army and perhaps even in the civilian leadership that are saying now is the time to take a tough line against the United States; other reformers perhaps saying, absolutely not — this is not the right time to test the United States.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Admiral?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    That adds the factor that it may be one of the most optimistic spins that we can put on this is that the Chinese government may be having difficulty deciding what to do. And, of course, that gives us the hope that soon they will decide to do what we consider an appropriate course of action and allow contact with the crew — allow repair of the airplane and its removal from Hainan and so forth.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Can we ever know for sure what really happened in the skies over the South China Sea?

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    I think we can. I don't think we have assurance. For example it's not unlikely that there was a videotape made of the intercept from within the airplane. So that certainly would be one thing. When we have a chance to talk to the EP-3 aircraft commander and others in the cockpit, we would certainly be able to compare what they say with the other pilot of the Chinese F-8 might say if we ever hear what he has to say.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Admiral McVadon, Kurt Campbell, thank you both.

  • KURT M. CAMPBELL:

    Thank you.

  • REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.):

    Thank you.

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