April 18, 2001
Some See Double Standard in China FlapBy Indira A.R. Lakshmanan
BEIJING - As US and Chinese officials met today to negotiate the return of an $80 million US plane and the future of spy flights, a nagging question remained unanswered: What would the United States do if the shoe were on the other foot?
There is no precise historical parallel, but numerous military historians and analysts said several cases with some similarities, as well as standard US procedures, suggest that Washington would just as vehemently oppose surveillance flights 60 miles off the US coast - and be just as quick to dismantle and delay returning a high-tech Chinese plane if one landed uninvited on US shores or at an overseas US base.
US politicians have hailed as heroes the US crew that China released last week after an 11-day standoff and are now angrily threatening payback against China. But that indignation smacks of a double standard, said some observers who believe Washington would behave similarly if the tables were turned.
"What if a super-secret Chinese plane unexpectedly landed on Okinawa or Guam or Hawaii?" asked Dale Brown, a former US Air Force captain and author of the forthcoming book "Warrior Class."
"You shouldn't be surprised to learn that the US would be doing much the same as the Chinese military is doing," he said, saying US authorities would search the plane "from top to bottom looking for explosives, chemical or biological weapons, or other immediate hazards. . . . The plane would get a thorough examination by trained intelligence officers and engineers, even if that meant dismantling it. Yes, the plane is some other nation's property, but it would be in our territory, not by our invitation."
The day after the April 1 collision between the US EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet some 60 miles southeast of China's Hainan Island, President Bush said the US plane had made an emergency landing and was sovereign territory of the United States, obligating the Chinese to leave the plane untouched and return it immediately.
The Chinese replied that they had every right to search a plane that landed without permission at a Chinese military base, and to hold onto it until their investigation is done.
"The argument that this plane is sovereign US territory is without merit. It would normally have immunity, but that is compromised if you are spying," said Francis Boyle, an international law professor at the University of Illinois.
Like China, the United States maintains a 200-mile Air Defense Intercept Zone along its coast, and US fighter jets scramble to intercept and escort any foreign military aircraft that crosses the line, said several US analysts and a State Department official.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union routinely flew surveillance planes along the East and West coasts of the United States, outside 12-mile US territorial waters but inside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. Russia continues the flights to a lesser extent today.
"The Soviets would fly their maritime patrol aircraft out over Iceland, down the US coast, land in Cuba . . . get back in their planes and do it all over again," said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington, D.C.-based defense policy group. "The US was doing exactly the same thing."
But unlike Washington and Moscow, which each had bases from which they could monitor the other's coastlines, Chinese spy planes are not believed to have the range or far-flung bases from which to conduct surveillance along the US coast.
Steven Aftergood, senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., said the world would not have seen a mirror image sequence of events if a Chinese military flight had landed on US territory.
"We would not seize the crew and not seize the aircraft of a country that we maintained diplomatic relations with," he asserted.
In 1993, when a Chinese passenger plane made an emergency landing at Shemya Island Air Base, a very sensitive US military site, American officials assisted the plane and crew and sent it on its way. True, it was a commercial flight, Pike said, but all the same, "I cannot emphasize the profound sensitivity of that air base."
To counter Washington's claim that its spy flights are fully legal, China cites the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which says planes flying over a foreign economic zone "shall have due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal state," and "shall refrain from any threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."
Reflecting widespread public frustration here, Liberation Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese military, recently accused Washington of "causing trouble in front of China's home. Their actions were completely provocative, full of hostility. How could they say it is a routine mission?"
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said the United States was "engaging in traditional military activities, which are legally permissible . . . [and] conducted with due regard to China's rights and duties as a coastal state."
As for the plane, the US government has argued that maritime law dating back hundreds of years has established a precedent of "safe harbor" for military vessels in distress, a claim China says doesn't apply in this case.
The current flap has an imperfect parallel with a 1976 case in which a defecting Soviet fighter pilot landed his MiG-25 jet - at the time, top-of-the-line hardware - in Japan, handing an information bonanza to Western intelligence agencies.
Like Washington today, the Soviets demanded the plane's return and eventually got it - in packing crates, after American specialists spent nine weeks stripping it and going over its parts with a fine-toothed comb.
But that case was different, Ruth Wedgwood, an international law professor at Yale University, said recently, because the Soviet defector handed over the plane willingly and did not make an emergency landing, so obligations to protect a distressed vessel's sovereignty might not have applied.
At the heart of the dispute between Washington and Beijing is a fundamentally different view of the cause of the accident. The United States says its plane was in international airspace and maintaining a straight course when the Chinese jet hit it. The United States followed the rules, Washington says, so America is not to blame.
The Chinese say the crash never would have happened if the US plane had not been flying so close to their coastline in the first place.
In a sign that Beijing would take a hard line in today's meeting, the official Global Times warned Monday that if the United States "continues spy flights, it will be very dangerous."
This story was reported in Beijing and filed from Hong Kong. John Donnelly of the Globe staff contributed material from Washington.
Copyright 2001 The Boston Globe