China and US spyplane

SF Examiner

April 12, 2001

Reading U.S. press accounts concerning the recent crisis in U.S.-China relations could make one think the whole brouhaha is about language: The Chinese say they want an “apology,” the U.S. wants to just express “regrets.” But the genesis of the April 1 collision between a U.S. EP-3E spy plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter over the South China Sea has very little to do with linguistics. The Chinese are afraid, and they have damm good reason to be so.

Cut through all the so-called cultural pre-occupation about “face,” and consider the following:

* When the Bush Administration took over, it immediately changed the U.S. designation of China from “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor.”

* The Pentagon soon followed with an announcement that the U.S. would build an anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) that “coincidentally” could cancel out all of China’s 18 ICBMs. Asked if the action might not upset the Chinese, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld briskly dismissed China’s anxieties: “China is not a concern. It’s not a party to the ABM.”

* The White House not only halted talks with North Korea (aimed at restraining the North Korean missile program that the ABM system was originally designed to deal with), it pressured South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung into appointing hard-line conservative, Han Seung Soo, as Defense Minister. Han immediately re-established the Team Spirit wargames, which recreates a joint U.S.-South Korean invasion of North Korea. The 1950 U.S. invasion of North Korea was what sparked Chinese entrance into the Korean War.

* The U.S. is contemplating the sale of advanced destroyers armed with the Aegis ABM system, Advanced Patriot Missiles, and submarines to Taiwan.

* Japan, again under pressure from the Bush Administration, is debating a tongue-twisting piece of legislation entitled War Laws on Measures to Deal With Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan. For the first time since the post-war Peace Constitution, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will have the authority to seize land and expropriate a civilian workforce. It would also give free port and airfield access to the U.S. during military emergencies. There are already 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan.

The “War Law” resonates strongly in Asia, where memories of WW II are still fresh. While most Americans think of the Japanese more as an economic force than a military one, Japan has the fifth largest navy in the world, and the 15th largest air force. Its SDF would match all but the four biggest NATO countries in armor and artillery. At $37 billion, its military budget is slightly more than China’s.

There is also a growing nationalist movement in Japan, and recent publications that glorify Japan’s World War II exploits and downplay Imperial atrocities have drawn sharp protests from China.

Nor has China forgotten earlier atrocities at the hands of the great European empires, from the 1839-42 Opium Wars, when the British forced drug addiction on the Chinese, to the sack of Peking in 1860. An eyewitness for the London Times recorded the behavior of British troops when they stormed the Yuan Ming Yuan, or summer palace: “When they first ran into the palace, they had no idea what to take. In order to take the gold, they threw away the silver. In order to take the gems, they threw away the gold. A lot of priceless china and porcelain was just destroyed because it was too big to move.”

Imagine, if you will, President James Buchanan fleeing the White House (and President-elect Abraham Lincoln remaining in Illinois for safety) while British troops pillaged Washington in the same way. Is this something the Chinese are likely to forget?

When the Bush Administration (and most media outlets, this one excepted) claimed that the downed plane was “sovereign territory,” the claim was little different than when the European powers carved out pieces of China, like Hong Kong and Macao. You could almost taste the Imperial arrogance coming out of Washington and hear the martial tone of Kipling: “Send ‘Chinese’ Gordon up the Yangtze to give the wogs a whiff of the grapeshot. That’ll learn ‘em some manners.”

But this is not 1860, and imperial language is not simply inappropriate, it’s damned dangerous. Washington and the U.S media have failed to confront that China has serious national security interests that we have routinely violated for years.

This was not the first flight of an EP-3E near Chinese territory. For years, EP-3Es, RC-135s, Blackbirds, U-2s, and a variety of airborne and seaborne intelligence gathering devices have overflown or spied on the People’s Republic. Since the tense 1996 standoff over Taiwan, when U.S. carriers stationed themselves off the Chinese mainland, the U.S. has been aggressively monitoring the PRC’s military.

While the U.S. media has highlighted recent complaints by the U.S. that Chinese military aircraft have come dangerously close to American surveillance planes, PRC complaints about aggressive U.S. spying have gone unreported. The Chinese are particularly touchy about their two new submarines, a quiet-running Kilo class diesel that appeared about a year ago, and the 093, modeled after the Russian Victor III. The latter has the ability to launch cruise missiles while submerged, allowing the Chinese to challenge U.S. aircraft carriers. In China’s front yard, I would add, not off the Golden Gate or Nantucket.

Things got so dicey last month in the Yellow Sea that a Chinese frigate pulled within 100 yards of the USNS Bowditch, a high tech surveillance ship, and trained its guns on the U.S. craft. While the EP-3E might have, indeed, been in international airspace when it was intercepted, it was international airspace near Hainan Island, just south of the Zhanjiang headquarters of the South China Fleet, the port for China’s new subs.

Given the recent Cold War rhetoric of the Bush Administration toward Russia, its unilateralism on everything from global warming to the bombing of Baghdad, if the Chinese are worried, they have every right to be. China spends one-eighth of what the U.S. does on its military, so when Rumsfeld talks about the dangers of PRC military spending, the Chinese know he is blowing smoke—right into the eyes of most the American media.

What no one seems to be willing to say is that the U.S. simply has no right to endanger another nation’s national security and not expect a reaction. Of course we should apologize. We scared the hell out of the biggest country in the world, one which has far more reason to fear us (and our allies), than we them. More than that, we should immediately halt these dangerous and destabilizing spy flights, which have killed 152 Americans since the end of World War II.

As intelligence expert James Bamford, author of the “Puzzle Palace” and the soon to be released “Body of Secrets” about the National Security Agency argues, “There are good reasons to consider ending our frequent, provocative, costly and often redundant close-in air patrols. The purpose of intelligence is to reduce tensions and the possibilities of war, not raise them.”


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