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Paper No. 225                                 05.04.2001

by B. Raman 

The fact that President Jiang Zemin of China has left on his South American tour, without changing his plans, indicates that the Chinese political leadership does not expect the accident involving a spy-in-the-sky plane of the USA's National Security Agency (NSA) and a Chinese military plane to assume serious dimensions--domestically or internationally.  However, it remains to be seen whether their confidence turns out to be misplaced.

The Chinese authorities have till now been successful in preventing a mob hysteria of the kind witnessed in the streets after the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy building in Belgrade in 1999.  In China, such demonstrations are not possible without at least some orchestration from behind the scene-- either by the leadership itself or by its hidden opponents.  There are so far no indications of such orchestration.

From all accounts and from a careful reading of all explanations and accusations emanating from the Chinese spokesmen themselves, it is very clear that the accidental collision took place in international air space over the high seas where the US aircraft, spy or no spy, had every right to be.

Whether the collision was due to a faulty manoeuvre by the US or Chinese pilot is not clear, but this writer is inclined to believe that the fault was committed by the US pilot, while taking evasive action.

With his aircraft badly disabled after the collision, the US pilot had only two options--- either fly back to Okinawa or to a non-Chinese airport for an emergency landing, which might have meant certain death for some, if not all, of the US experts on board the plane or land at the nearest airfield (in Hainan), even if it was a Chinese airfield.

Proceeding to a Chinese airfield involved entering Chinese air space with the consequent danger of being shot down by ground fire.  He had, therefore, alerted the Chinese airport authorities through Mayday signals before entering the Chinese air space and attempting an emergency landing.

His disabled aircraft was a plane in distress involving the lives of 24 persons, spy or no spy, and he had every right to land at the nearest airport and the Chinese authorities were morally and legally bound to facilitate the landing.  If at all, the US pilot had committed a technical violation of Chinese sovereignty under totally understandable circumstances.

Instead of appreciating this, the Chinese authorities have been conducting themselves in a manner which seems unreasonable and petulant and raising demands such as an unconditional apology, right of inspection of the plane and renunciation of the right to send spy-in-the-sky planes into that area.

On the basis of facts available so far, no ground for a formal apology by the US exists. All that would be required is an expression of regret by the US if the pilot had landed before the Chinese cleared the landing in response to his Mayday.

The US, or any other nation for that matter, including India, has every right to collect electronic intelligence from a platform located in high seas or in international air space. The Chinese too have every right to frustrate this through appropriate jamming and other devices, but they cannot use intimidatory or bullying tactics or demand a formal renunciation of this right by others.

The Chinese have justified their demand for the right of inspection of the landed US plane by citing a 1993 incident when the US successfully forced a Chinese ship, suspected to be carrying chemical weapons to Iran, to divert to a Gulf port for an inspection of its cargo by a third party (Saudi Arabia).  The international law on this subject is not clear.

Even if the Chinese are able to formally inspect the US plane it is going to serve no purpose since the US crew had reportedly neutralised all the equipment before the emergency landing.  Chinese persistence in this demand would only add further bad blood to Sino-US relations.

The Bush administration has come to office with considerable reservations-- some of them, at least, not totally unjustified--about China's intentions and policies.  By conducting itself in a responsible and mature manner, Beijing had the opportunity of convincing the Bush Administration that its reservations were unjustified.

Instead, by conducting itself in the manner it has been doing, it will only end up by convincing not only the US, but also other nations in the region that the Bush Administration is probably not wrong in its perceptions and misgivings vis-à-vis China. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: