- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

A Chinese military jet crashed yesterday after colliding with a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane over international waters, and the damaged U.S. aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in southern China.

The aerial incident occurred a week after another confrontation between a Chinese warship and a U.S. Navy surveillance ship in the Yellow Sea described by Navy officials as a "threatening" Chinese action against the ship in international waters.

China's official Xinhua news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying the pilot of the downed F-8 interceptor jet was missing in the South China Sea.

Spokesman Zhu Bangzao also said the 24 U.S. military personnel that were aboard the Navy four-engine plane are at a military airfield at Lingshui on Hainan Island and have been provided with "proper arrangements."

However, Mr. Zhu also stated China "reserves the right to further negotiate" about their fate suggesting the 22 Navy sailors, one Air Force airman and a Marine are being detained. Three female sailors are among the crew, a U.S. government official said.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said today that a group of U.S. diplomats had left for Hainan, but it could not say if they would see the crew. The embassy did not say when the diplomats were expected to arrive.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the United States expects China to return the EP-3 crew. "That is our expectation. That is the standard practice. We would expect them to follow it," he said.

State Department spokeswoman Michelle King said officials had been assured the crew was "safe and well."

The military spying incident comes at a time of growing tension between the United States and China over Beijing's recent arrest of two American academics, plans for new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and a proposed U.S. national missile defense opposed by the Chinese.

"It looks like there has been a turn toward the hard line in Beijing," said one national security official. "The Chinese think [President] Bush is trying to challenge them and they're reacting."

U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Dewey Ford said the aerial incident occurred about 9:15 a.m. local time Sunday (8:15 p.m. EST Saturday) as the Navy aircraft, an electronic eavesdropping version of the P-3 Orion, was being shadowed by two Chinese F-8 jets about 50 miles southeast of Hainan Island.

One of the F-8s touched the EP-3 and caused unspecified damage, Col. Ford said. The American plane then issued a "mayday" distress call before making an emergency landing on the island.

Pentagon officials said the EP-3s were monitoring a Chinese military exercise north of the island and that the close passes between U.S. and Chinese aircraft have been occurring almost on a daily basis in recent weeks.

Xinhua stated in a dispatch from Beijing that the U.S. aircraft "bumped" the Chinese fighter after it "suddenly turned" during the encounter near Hainan.

In Honolulu, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific command, said the collision is part of a pattern of unsafe activities by the Chinese military toward U.S. surveillance activities.

"I must tell you that the intercepts by Chinese fighters over the past couple of months have become more aggressive to the point that we felt they were endangering the safety of the Chinese and American aircraft," Adm. Blair told reporters at a news conference.

"It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air," he said.

Adm. Blair said the military is "waiting right now for the Chinese government to give us the kind of cooperation that is expected of countries in situations like this."

"But as time goes on, it's increasingly worse and it's been 18 hours that we don't have a phone call yet from our crew. We're talking about a place that has telephones."

As of last night, Adm. Blair said "we just don't know" what happened to the 24 service members.

The admiral dismissed Chinese claims that the EP-3 was at fault. "It's pretty obvious who bumped who," he said.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that the Chinese should release the crew and aircraft.

The Chinese military appears "very unprofessional" in the eyes of military personnel worldwide unless it explains the incident, the senator said.

"This is a tragic military accident that could have been avoided if Chinese pilots had respected the laws of international airspace," Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Zhu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the plane "intruded into China's airspace and made an emergency landing."

China has protested the incident to the U.S. government, Mr. Zhu said.

Pentagon officials said the Chinese have stepped up recent intercepts of the EP-3s, which are based at Kadena Air Base in Japan.

The encounters have included some intercepts by F-8s armed with air-to-air missiles and some without missiles. "They've been flying within 20 feet of the EP-3s," said one official.

"This was a routine surveillance mission and one of the two F-8s bumped our aircraft," Col. Ford said.

"We are working through the embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Washington to make arrangements for the return of the aircraft and crew," Col. Ford said. The crew is safe, but none of the names of those on the EP-3 have been released.

The EP-3 is equipped with sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment and its capture by China's military would be an intelligence boost, a defense official said.

Asked about the incident yesterday, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said if the U.S. plane was in international airspace, "I think this could have … some serious repercussions."

On NBC's "Meet the Press," the Arizona senator said it is crucial that the EP-3 "not be inspected or entered by any Chinese" because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence equipment aboard. "We need assurance from the Chinese" on that, he added.

Mr. McCain said he hopes the Chinese will "help us repair that plane and get it off that island very quickly."

At the State Department, a spokeswoman said U.S. ambassador to China Adm. Joseph Prueher met with China's vice foreign minister yesterday in an effort to resolve the matter.

"We've been in touch with the Chinese since last night and throughout the day, both in Washington and China," said Miss King, the State Department spokeswoman.

Mr. Prueher, a retired admiral, met with the Chinese vice foreign minister, who was not identified, last night in Beijing "in an initial meeting to resolve the situation," she said.

Mr. Bush was notified of the incident Saturday night and received an update report yesterday morning, a White House spokesman said. The president is spending the weekend at the Camp David retreat in western Maryland and was informed of the events by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The EP-3 incident came a week after a March 24 encounter in the Yellow Sea, near the Korean Peninsula, in which a Chinese frigate closed to within 100 yards of the unarmed surveillance ship USS Bowditch as it conducted ocean survey operations in the region, Navy officials said.

According to the officials, the Chinese ship, the Jianghu III-class frigate Huangshi, "made aggressive and provocative maneuvers" toward the survey ship.

The Chinese ship also aimed its gunfire control radar, but not its gun, at the Bowditch and told the the ship by radio it was not allowed to operate inside the 200-mile coastal zone China considers its "Economic Exclusion Zone."

The ship was operating in international waters outside the internationally recognized 12-mile territorial limit.

The Navy ship was forced to flee the area and a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft also shadowed it, the officials said.

Intelligence officials said the ship was monitoring sea exercises of China's Xia-class ballistic missile submarine, which was operating in the area at the time of the incident.

Both the South China Sea and Yellow Sea encounters came despite a 1998 U.S.-China agreement aimed at preventing such incidents at sea. They also are raising questions among defense officials about China's growing military power and aggressiveness in the region.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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