Commentary by the author of this website
The following news item appeared in the NY Times for May 7, 2001
WASHINGTON (AP)May 7, 2001 10:44 a.m. -- An Air Force plane on Monday flew the first U.S. reconnaissance flight off China's coast since the April 1 collision between a Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, a U.S. defense official said. The RC-135 reconnaissance plane, flying from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, flew a routine track along the northern portion of China's coastline, the official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
This event follows by 3 days the return of the American team that China permitted to inspect the EP-3E that has been sitting on the tarmac at Lingshui Airbase on Hainan Island since April 1st. The U.S had to weigh its interest in recovering the aircraft against its desire for the continuous flow of intelligence information these flights provide. Respect for the sovereignty of its major trading partner, unless backed by credible firepower, is, it is safe to say, non-existent.
From an intelligence perspective, all the codes and secrets embodied in the hardware had to be considered compromised as soon as the aircraft was abandoned on Chinese territory by its crew and it is a certainty that efforts are underway to minimize the damage from this major breach of security.
We can thus perceive the stepwise return of U.S. policy in this area to its pre-April 1st state, matching precisely the stepwise decline of China's leverage. On April 1st China's leverage consisted of the aircraft and its crew of 24. Aside from some initial bluster which rapidly died out, the U.S. was quite conciliatory, ultimately expressing official regrets for entering China's airspace and the loss of the Chinese pilot. On April 11th China announced that it would release the crew.
On April 12th, with the crew safely out of China, the U.S began shedding the diplomatic niceties it had observed in the previous period. Bush explicitly blamed the Chinese pilot, Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, for the collision. The administration began justifying the need for the spy flights on television, while the Pentagon clamored for their resumption. But there were no flights.
The U.S then requested that its technicians be allowed to inspect the aircraft for the ostensible purpose of assessing the best means of returning it to U.S. control. This was likely a ruse, with the real reason being to fix with some degree of certainty and from an intelligence perspective, what had been delivered into China's hands. The credibility of the crew, all necessary celebration of their heroism aside, would be rated rather low. Remarkably, China granted this request.
One can speculate endlessly on the reason for China's generosity in this instance, but there is no doubt how it was interpreted by the practitioners of realpolitik in the structures of American power: it lay somewhere between gullibility and ignorance. Neither of which is flattering to China.
The U.S. media acted as unwitting conduits to propagate the ostensible purpose of the trip with the NY Times reporting on May 1st, the day the team arrived on Hainan, "The U.S. team is expected to stay on Hainan for at least two days to determine whether the $80 million high tech surveillance plane can be flown back to the United States or must be shipped back in pieces. Another team will probably be sent to repair or remove the plane, depending on the first team's recommendations." Notice the emphasis on the high, pre-collision value of the aircraft rather on its value as an unflyable wreck on hostile territory. The outgoing U.S. ambassador, Admiral Prueher, said, "I hope they'll get a look at it, make an assessment. That's what we have to do first and then get on to get that out. The airplane is sort of a corrosive element right now in our relationship. It's a reminder of a hard spot, and we need to clean that up and get on with things." The awkwardness of the ambassador's language is revealing. As is the attempt to frame the inspection as the first step in removing a mental bump on the mercantilist superhighway stretching eastward from China.
On May 4th the team reported the completion of their inspection, after having spent 6 hours on it that day. Previously they had reported lack of cooperation from the Chinese, referring specifically to the unwillingness of the Chinese to supply them with electrical power. With the potential for damage to the engines, there is no way to determine airworthiness of the aircraft without their disassembly and this was not done.
The preparations for the resumption of the spy flights had been started long ago. China's leverage had now dropped to zero. The point in time for their resumption had been reached. And they were.
If China returns the airplane to the U.S., at this point a purely symbolic gesture, and accepts
the spy flights, it will be interpreted as a slavish surrender of sovereignty and a signal that
China is ready to accept its assigned role in the ranks of the American empire. That role is that
of a supplier of cheap household goods to American workers, diminishing wage friction between them
and their employers, and thus contributing to labor peace and directly contributing to the further
accumulation of wealth by American capitalism, a quite remarkable role for a country led by an
ostensibly communist party which conquered state power in 1949.
8 May 2001 0028 GMT.