The EP-3 collision: 2001 and 201?

Twelve years ago on April 1, a US Navy EP-3 Orion spy plane collided with a Chinese interceptor flown by a flamboyant People's Liberation Army Navy pilot, who then crashed into the ocean.

The Orion, damaged in the collision, was forced down on Hainan Island, sparking weeks of controversy and tension between the US and China. It was the third major military incident between the two within five years, the others being the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing. Considering escalating tensions and suspected hostile intentions as the US and China vie for primacy across Asia, it might be only a question of time before there is another, with far greater consequences.

Because of the diplomatic row the 2001 collision kicked off, it would be instructive to look at what happened, and its implications. American officials believe the immediate cause of the crash was accidental contact brought about by the F-8 fighter – but was precipitated by increased aggressiveness in the PLA's interceptions of American aircraft in international airspace.

At a news conference after the crash, the then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, revealed that US reconnaissance flights had been intercepted 44 times by the off the coast of China, with Chinese fighter jets coming within 10 meters of the American craft six times, and with two confrontations within just three meters in the weeks earlier. He also reported that the United States had formally protested the aggressive and dangerous behavior. He then showed a video taken aboard one of the planes in January showing an F-8 flying very close.

Certainly, those dangerously close approaches were known to the leaders in Beijing, at least through formal protests of the American authorities. The Chinese pilot who died in the collision, Wang Wei, was already known to US officials for being careless. There are pictures of previous close intercepts by his same F-8 fighter, and the Pentagon reported that aggressive interceptions of US aircraft occurred to the south of China. No matter whether it was those pilots' own style or sanctioned by supervisors, it was provocative and confrontational.

Officers of the Lingshui naval air base on Hainan island and the Yulin base believed that the frequency of reconnaissance flights had increased and that the standoff distance from PLA Navy ships had decreased. They were said to be frustrated, even angry, and felt their protests had been ignored by the Americans. After the F-8 had fallen into the sea, the flight leader reportedly requested permission to shoot down the American aircraft. Officials at Lingshui relayed the request to PLA Navy headquarters in Beijing. The request, assuming the validity of this assertion, was denied.

America on the rise

More than a decade ago, America was not being perceived in China as it is today -- as declining -- and China was not a major economy. It was a time when many Chinese authors were predicting that multipolarization would be the future global trend, with the Eurozone emerging as a new pole along with Japan. As a result, Europe and Japan would move toward becoming equal partners with the US, seeking to share world leadership.

By the mid-1990s, Chinese authors began to notice that the US economy was doing remarkably well. Quite a few of them marveled at its brilliant performance and were commonly optimistic about its future. By the end of the decade, they generally agreed that the US had been doing much better than its major competitors and that America had increased its lead. This positive attitude continued into the first half of the next decade. Opinions varied from seeing America as an economy that did not decline in recent years, to foretelling its continued expansion for the coming few decades.

Although there were also more cautious and pessimistic opinions among Chinese scholars, in general China perceived the likelihood of a relatively long-lasting American hegemony. Improving bilateral relations seemed then to be China's preferred policy for the foreseeable future.

International events of the 1990s made some Chinese commentators realize that world politics was not really moving into multipolarization. They rather feared a unipolar world dominated by the US together with other developed countries.

In the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s the majority of American and European analysts believed that Western democracies would find a way to get along with the Chinese autocrats. Yet in the real world the CCP was using nationalism in domestic politics and anger in its US policy.

Thus the EP-3 collision was a wakeup call for American decision makers that things were not as good as many believed them to be. Indeed, today the United States faces a resurgent China whose economic might continues to grow at a torrid pace, with its military prowess growing as well. The multipolar world of the 1990s has come to include a new pole in the East that the US is attempting to counter with its pivot to Asia.

The outcome of the EP-3 incident is not encouraging.

On April 4, 2001 after the crash, the Chinese side demanded that Washington "bear full responsibility, apologize to China, and not seek any excuse to shirk its responsibility". The last time this happened was three years earlier after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. President Clinton defused the situation thenby making a public apology.

The Bush administration backed away from any apology, however, making film public showing the Chinese pilot's aggressiveness. But ultimately, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others did make oblique statements including the word "sorry." President Bush ultimately sent a letter to the Chinese pilot's widow expressing regret over her husband's death.

Both sides were negotiating over the same objective – relative power and their standing in the region. Another objective was face – both parties saw vital national interests at stake.

Since the PRC government did receive carefully worded statements of regret, it seems that in the China prevailed in the negotiation.

This is especially interesting as the CCP has accused the US of "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people" more than 20 times since the 1980s. This position is second only to Japan being accused of the same almost 50 times. According to the research conducted by the blogger FangKC, a student of the Peking University, in the Mao Zedong era (1950s to end of the 1970s) Chinese feelings were hurt only three times. However, during the reform era (from the 80s on), "hurt feelings" increased 11 times in 1989 and 1998 and 12 times in 2000.

Finally on April 12, Beijing let the crew go back home and three months later the dismantled plane left aboard an An-124. Interestingly, 25 years earlier, in September 1976, a Soviet MIG-25 military plane was flown to Japan. On that occasion, the US believed that there was a right to examine the aircraft. Despite Soviet protests, American and Japanese intelligence officials disassembled the plane to study it for over two months before they returned it to the Soviet Union in packing crates because that type of military plane was then a mystery to the West.

What is not mentioned, either in the media or in various reports, is that laying hands on the EP-3's highly advanced US technology might have been a quantum leap for Chinese intelligence. So despite the public outcry, in terms of the technological competition, this might have been quite a coup for the PLA.

In both China and the U.S., the plane collision strengthened the positions of hardliners and virulent nationalists and generally created negative feelings.

For the next few months military relations were evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The American presumption was to "minimize contact" with Chinese counterparts. According to Pentagon officials, this new policy directive was not solely a result of the April 1 mid-air collision, but rather stemmed from a judgment that the military relationship has been imbalanced in the past, with the Chinese side obtaining greater access to US military facilities and information than the US was able to achieve.

The detention of the crew for 11 days on Hainan did affect the political climate in Washington. Top officials and the President decided to offer Taiwan the largest package in a decade, since President George HW Bush sold the island F-16 fighters.

Washington also accepted then-President Chen Shui-bian's transit visit to New York and Houston on a five-day trip to Latin America. In both cities he met with officials. Unlike his predecessor, President Bush met the Dalai Lama, who not only "dropped by".

After the 12-day standoff came to an end, the US Army resumed military surveillance flights along the Chinese coast. The Sino-American relationship got back on track at the end of the year after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. The Bush administration needed PRC cooperation on its War on Terror.

The PRC's opposition to American spying remains thorny. The Chinese Navy keeps pushing back on this issue as it did a year and a half ago when two Chinese warplanes intercepted an American spy plane over the Taiwan Strait.

In recent years tensions have increased between China and the US as well as military tensions between China with its neighbors both in the South and the East China Sea. It is therefore likely, that another incident like the one discussed here, or one including maritime forces, might occur. What's worse, according a top intelligence officer from the US Navy, Captain James Fanell, the PLA Navy is accompanying its so-called civilian vessels "always looming in the background, just behind the horizon, ready for combat" and the "China Marine Surveillance is a full-time, maritime, sovereignty harassment organization."

Such a collision would be even more problematic in the age of Sina Weibo, the popular communications tool which did not exist a decade ago, and which fanned xenophobia enormously last year during China's confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islets. With easier spreading of information among the Chinese population, there would be much less maneuverability.

Another difference compared with a decade earlier is the state-cultivated nationalism and a domestic perception of China being not properly understood and of having its rightful place in the world rejected. There is also a sense that the US, through its "pivot to Asia" and its proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is attempting to contain China both militarily and economically. Should an incident like EC-3 occur over one of many neighboring territories that the PRC has been claiming as its own, it might feel compelled to set an example.

(Richard Zalski is affiliated with the Central-East European think-tank CSPA)