IN AN AGE of rivalry and mistrust between superpowers, it is strange to talk about happiness smiling at America’s relations with China. But in one important area, the rivals have shared a long string of astonishing good fortune. It has been two decades since the last deadly encounter between the US and Chinese armed forces. Today, the skies and seas around China are teeming with a growing number of planes and warships from every side. In Beijing, scientists and officials are talking about when, not if there will be another accident. Then they wonder how such a crisis would be managed, by two countries caught in open ideological competition and haunted by rising nationalism.
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The latest incident involved a collision between a Chinese naval fighter and an American spy plane high over the South China Sea on April 1, 2001. The Chinese pilot died after his fighter jet broke apart. Severely damaged US Navy reconnaissance aircraft, a cumbersome, propeller-driven EP-3 with 24 crew members on board, stumbled to a Chinese military airport on the tropical island of Hainan and landed without permission. The detention of the crew by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was an early test for George W. Bush, who had been president for less than three months. The crew was released just 11 days later, after US Ambassador to Beijing Joseph Prueher signed a letter saying his government was “deeply sorry” for the death of the Chinese pilot. Noting that the EP-3 made an emergency landing to rescue the crew, the letter added that America also “deeply regretted” the plane’s arrival in Hainan without permission. With skillful translation into Mandarin, China presented the letter as a formal apology. Party leaders declared the pilot, Lieutenant Commander Wang Wei, a revolutionary martyr and guardian of the sea and sky. Official media told citizens to channel their grief into hard work to make China strong, and the country moved on.
In 2001, both governments took risks to end the deadlock. Chaguan covered the EP-3 collision during a previous deployment to China. Hours before the Americans flew home, he interviewed locals on a hot, rainy street near the Americans’ detention center in Hainan. The eavesdropping police officers ignored passers-by and shouted that the… EP-3 pilot to be tried. Outraged university students spoke of suppressed protests on campus and broken handwritten posters. They were right to feel like a fudge. Despite all their demands that America end surveillance flights near China, party leaders signaled early on to Bush administration envoys that they wanted a deal, in the interest of broader bilateral relations. In particular, China wanted to organize access to the World Trade Organization and the 2008 Olympics, and America had influence on both. After making it clear that he wanted the dispute resolved, President Jiang Zemin set out on a tour of Latin America.
America has also compromised. Pentagon officials provided reporters with footage of Wang Wei flying so close to US planes on past missions that he could be seen holding his email address. When they were later interrogated, EP-3 crew of April 1 described the Chinese pilot making two reckless passes within ten feet, before misjudging a third and hitting one of their propellers. The PLA account ignored the laws of physics and common sense: that Wang Wei was a safe 400 meters away when the larger, slower EP-3 swerved and rammed into him. But to get the crew home, US negotiators put aside the question of guilt.
Luck played a part in 2001. Mr. Bush handed the crisis over to his new Secretary of State, Colin Powell, a pragmatist with unusual influence as a former general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, able to extract swift decisions from the White House. to get . Mr. Prueher was a former admiral and chief of Pacific Command, who as a naval aviator spoke with confidence about airborne interceptions. That said, previous contacts with Chinese generals didn’t help, he recalled in a telephone interview. The PLA he says, “wasn’t on hand to resolve this issue. They didn’t answer my calls.” The EP-3’s survival was a stroke of luck. Brigadier General Neal Sealock, who led the on-the-spot talks in Hainan as US defense attaché in Beijing, agrees EP-3 pilot “great credit” for saving his crew, avoiding catastrophe or even war if 24 Americans were killed in a crash or, worse, shot. Powell’s influence somewhat shielded American negotiators in China from politics in Washington. Two decades later, a much more partisan Congress and the media in America would certainly denounce or hinder any compromise like that of the Bush administration. Today, “if China is a problem, what it is, a bigger problem is controlling the effectiveness and efficiency of our government,” said Mr. Prueher.
All strokes of luck eventually end
For their part, Chinese nationalists would be more difficult to manage these days. Most Chinese get their news from often strident online outlets, rather than the sedate television channels that downplayed the 2001 crisis. Chinese scholars see some positive changes, starting with the PLA‘s growing capabilities. Zhang Tuosheng, a former military academic and diplomat, is a crisis management expert at the Grandview Institution, a think tank in Beijing. In 2001, he says, US officers debated destroying their own plane on the ground to keep its secrets, but thankfully decided not to fire a missile at a Chinese airbase. China’s contemporary strength should make America even more cautious now, he argues. Mr. Zhang praises emergency hotlines and codes of conduct agreed by PLA and American commanders over the years. But China and America remain fundamentally divided on how to avoid accidents, he admits. The PLA emphasizes “national security,” which means America must stop coming near China. Americans place an emphasis on “safety,” meaning sober behavior during close encounters.
Meanwhile, Chinese pilots are becoming more aggressive. Since 2021, US and allied surveillance aircraft have recorded multiple near misses involving PLA planes, some, it is said, within 100 feet. When complaints are made, the answer from China is: stay away. Disaster is imminent. Next time it will be much more difficult to solve it. ■
Read more from Chaguan, our columnist on China:
China’s online nationalists turn paranoia into clickbait (Jan 8)
Beijing Winter Olympics May Accelerate China’s Break with the West (December 11)
China Says It’s More Democratic Than America (Dec 4)
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “One Accident Away From Disaster”