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2001 - Detail
April 1, 2001 - China-U.S. incident. An American spy plane collides with a fighter plane of China and makes an emergency landing in Hainan, China. The U.S. crew is detained for ten days.
It was an unfortunate incident, a complication of tenuous, but cordial relationships between the most powerful capitalist democracy in the world and a rising power of the communist sphere that was reaching for capitalism through socialism. So the United States kept tabs, spying on the Beijing regime through many means. In this case, a spy plane from the U.S. Navy was plying the skies along the Chinese coast, seventy-five miles from the Hainan Province, and one hundred miles from the Paracel Islands, an island which China claims, but whose claim is contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, and others. These flights around the contested South China Sea islands were not agreed to by Chinese authorities, who considered the area their territory and a no fly zone for foreign planes. The United States did not recognize that claim.
The United States spy plane was flying a regular mission of reconnaissance from its base in Okinawa, a procedure used since 1951, when it was intercepted by two Chinese J-8 fighters. A collision occured, causing the J-8 to break into two pieces and causing the death of one Chinese pilot. The U.S. EP-3 plane was severely damaged, with the crew planning to bail out before regaining control. After destroying much of the sensitive equipment, but not all, the United States plane made an emergency landing at the Chinese airbase in Hainan, a landing that was not authorized by the Chinese and again considered a breach of their territory.
The EP-3 crew of twenty-four was detained and interrogated. A diplomatic mission of three emissaries from the American Embassy was sent by President George W. Bush, newly inaugurated only ten weeks before, to negotiate for their release. There was already tension between the two nations, some of which stemmed from a NATO airstrike mistake two years prior in Belgrade on the Chinese embassy there, which killed three, and that some Chinese authorities thought was diliberate. In this case, at the very least, there was an immediate dispute on fault. United States saying it was the provocation of the J-8. The Chinese saying fault lay with the EP-3. They were detained for ten days until April 11 when two letters of sorry were sent by the United States to their Chinese counterparts after the Chinese military stripped the plane for any additional intelligence material that had not been destroyed.
Full Text, Letter of the Two Sorries
Dear Mr. Minister:
On behalf of the United States government, I now outline steps to resolve this issue.
Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss.
Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures. We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew.
In view of the tragic incident and based on my discussions with your representative, we have agreed to the following actions:
Both sides agree to hold a meeting to discuss the incident. My government understands and expects that our aircrew will be permitted to depart China as soon as possible.
The meeting would start April 18, 2001.
The meeting agenda would include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft, and other related issues. We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting.
Joseph W. Prueher
The twenty-four crew members were released after the acceptance of the letter, flying out of Hainan to be debriefed in Hawaii on the morning of April 12. A meeting between the two nations over the incident occurred on April 18-19, 2001. The Chinese did not agree to return the plane during the meeting, and the United States would not agree to limit flights outside the recognized international territorial limits of twelve miles. Several months later, on July 3, 2001, the damaged plane was returned with damage to the nose cone, propeller, engine, and antenna. It was repaired and put back into service as a reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea. Several incidents have occurred since the Hainan incident between United States ships and planes and their Chinese counterparts.
Photo Above: Crew of U.S. plane return home, 2001, to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Airman saluting is U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Curtis Towne. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons via the Air Force News Archives. Photo below: Example of the United States spy plane involved in the Hainan incident, Lockheed Martin EP3A, 2009. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons via U.S. Navy. Information source: CRS Report for Congress: China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications, Updated October 10, 2001; New York Times; Wikipedia Commons.
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