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The Kansas City Star
April 3, 2001

Both Nations Face Threat of Political Aftermath

by Scott Canon, Rick Montgomery

The collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea is more evidence of chilling relations between Washington and Beijing, analysts say.

How the two sides respond to the mess could determine their relationship for years to come.

"It is hard to consider this incident in isolation from the other conflicts that are going on between the U.S. and China," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, which analyzes national security and arms issues.

The United States and China are at odds over President Bush's proposal to develop a missile defense and over upcoming decisions on American arms sales to Taiwan. The Bush administration talks more about containing China than engaging it.

Although both sides have incentives not to appear too soft in resolving the dispute over the U.S. spy plane, "presumably there will be adequate adult supervision, and both sides will realize we have plenty of other things to argue about," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy group.

"A situation like this is the reason we have diplomats," Aftergood added.

Navy spy planes fly near China's southeastern coast to monitor military activity, including the buildup of land-based ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. The U.S. aircraft often are shadowed by Chinese fighter planes that keep a safe distance.

In recent months, however, the Chinese pilots have flown so close - reportedly within 10 feet - that American officials complained.

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he doubted the incident was a provocation authorized from Beijing.

"I find it difficult to believe that anybody would task a fighter pilot to do anything this reckless," Cordesman told The Associated Press.

American spy planes regularly cruise near hostile countries. The planes, which often cover gaps in spy satellite schedules, are relatively easy to spot and usually fly legally in international air space.

They annoy those they spy on.

"It's kind of a game. With real competitive countries, the game can get out of control," said Owen Cote of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"This (incident)," he said, "may tell you the Chinese don't have much interest in being passive right now."

This week's showdown is "certainly reminiscent" of airspace skirmishes in the Cold War, said Robert Weil, author of Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of Market Socialism.

Between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communist-bloc defenses shot down more than three dozen U.S. aircraft flying reconnaissance. Many of those planes were reportedly skirting the line between international airspace and Soviet territory.

In July 1960 an RB-47 modified bomber carried a six-man U.S. surveillance crew from Forbes Air Force Base at Topeka on a routine mission over the Barents Sea, near Soviet airspace. Soviet cannon fire from a MiG sent the plane into the water. Two surviving crewmen spent six months in Moscow's Lubyanka prison before being freed days after John F. Kennedy became president.

The downing of the RB-47 occurred two months after U.S. spy Francis Gary Powers, flying high over Russian territory, was forced to eject from a U-2 crippled by surface-to-air bombardment.

An embarrassed President Dwight Eisenhower subsequently called for an end to U.S. spy planes entering Soviet airspace. But the U-2 remained in use over mainland China, where as many as 13 were lost, according to historian Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum.

For the United States and China, said military analyst John Isaacs, the question is how the matter is handled from here on in.

"Does China make things difficult?" asked Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, an arms-control advocacy group. "Most of the calls and the mistakes are theirs, but it's not in the Chinese or U.S. interests to have it as a flash point."

That, he said, means both the plane and the crew could come home soon.

Weil said the Chinese "are particularly edgy at present because of the less-than-friendly attitude expressed by the Bush administration."

Whether the U.S. plane had entered forbidden airspace, Weil said, is a moot point for many Chinese. They're still angry about the May 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in NATO's assault on Yugoslavia. U.S. officials called it an accident. Three Chinese persons died, and a dozen others were wounded.

"The feeling of the Chinese is, why is the U.S. even over here, spying around and telling us what we can do within 20 miles of our shoreline?" Weil said. "If the U.S. discovered Chinese spy planes routinely flying over Puerto Rico, the people of the U.S. would go berserk - but that's exactly what we've been doing over there."

Copyright 2001 The Kansas City Star Co.

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