- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

The collision over the weekend between a Chinese fighter plane and U.S. surveillance aircraft was quite unfortunate. Beijing demonstrated, after the unintentional NATO bombing of a Chinese embassy in Kosovo, that it hardly takes accidents lightly. In fact, Beijing ratchets up the tension from these situations, presumably to prompt Washington to take a more obliging stance towards China.

China is responding to the recent airplane accident, which occurred over international air space on Sunday, in its signature style. Beijing rebuked the U.S. crew for landing their plane at a Chinese naval air base on Hainan Island "without permission from the Chinese side," even though U.S. pilots were forced to make an emergency landing. And China has refused to allow the 24-member crew to communicate with U.S. officials.

The United States and China have given contradictory accounts of what happened in the air. But the two sides agree that a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese naval F-8 fighter jet, modeled after a Russian MiG, collided over the South China Sea. The Chinese plan crashed and its pilot is missing.

Chinese fighter jets have been shadowing U.S. surveillance planes flying close to Chinese air space since the 1970s. But U.S. officials said that lately the Chinese have used a more aggressive and treacherous approach that has prompted them to complain to Chinese officials. "It´s not normal to play bumper cars in the air," Adm. Dennis Blair, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said he told Chinese officials.

Adm. Blair maintains that one of the two Chinese fighters tracking the U.S. plane bumped into one of its wings. Beijing, meanwhile, said that it was the U.S. plane that veered towards it fighter, and is demanding restitution from the United States for the crashed plane. Because the U.S. surveillance plane is significantly more stable than the Chinese fighter jet, the more likely scenario is that the Chinese jet collided with the U.S. plane.

President George W. Bush apologized unnecessarily to the Chinese for the accident. The unarmed U.S. plane was flying in international air space without violating either law or protocol. Mr. Bush has fortunately toughened his rhetoric since making the apology, calling on Beijing to arrange the "prompt and safe return" of the U.S. crew members and their plane. "I´m troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to this request for this access," he added. The president should remain firm in urging China´s respect for the crew and U.S. sovereignty over the plane. "It´s catastrophic for the U.S. if the Chinese have managed to gain access to the aircraft and if they´ve managed to obtain access to the computers and the hard disks," Paul Beaver of Jane´s Information Group, publisher of the respected Jane´s Defense Weekly, told Reuters.

Mr. Bush demonstrated sound judgment in deciding to refrain from contacting Chinese leaders himself to avoid the appearance the White House is in a crisis mode. There is no reason to believe the plane accident should lead to any substantive damage in U.S.-China relations. And the White House should resist any efforts by Beijing to leverage the current situation to win U.S. concessions, particularly as regards Taiwan.

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