China: April 5, 2001

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A Place in the Sun; For most of early 2001, Chinese fighters have been harassing U.S. reconnaissance aircraft off the coast of China. The recon flights over international waters have been going on for over half a century. On April 1st, a Chinese J-8 twin engine fighter clipped a U.S. EP-3 four engine turboprop aircraft. The J-8 crashed and the pilot ejected (but was never found.) The EP-3 limped away and made an emergency landing at a Chinese military airfield on nearby Hainan island. Intelligence collecting by aircraft and ships off the Chinese coast has been going on for over fifty years. Russian recon aircraft still fly off the Alaskan coast, and are usually met and escorted by two American fighters. Early in the Cold War, American recon aircraft were often attacked, and several were lost. But by the 1960s things had calmed down and in 1972, the U.S. and Russia signed an agreement to cover encounters at sea. Russian and Chinese electronic reconnaissance ships still cruise off American coats.

Buzzing foreign recon aircraft is a no-no. International conventions stipulate that the smaller, faster aircraft must stay clear of larger slower planes. That doesn't prevent you from intercepting and escorting aircraft flying off your coasts outside your territory. What apparently happened between the J-8 and the EP-3 was a second rate pilot (the Chinese now have more modern Russian aircraft for their best pilots) coming up behind the EP-3 and finding out about the air turbulence larger aircraft leave behind them. The J-8 is generally recognized as a pig of an aircraft and hard to control. So we have the J-8 buzzing the four engine EP-3, losing control and clipping the larger aircraft. The Chinese put themselves in an embarrassing position with the aviation community by accusing the EP-3 of causing the accident. Aside from the physical impossibility of that, EP-3 pilots are selected for their calm demeanor, not suicidal tendencies. Moreover, the EP-3 pilots primary task is to fly the aircraft along a precisely defined route (to get the best reception and to make sure the aircraft stays in international air space), not play games with fighter jets. 

So why do the Chinese claim that the EP-3 caused the accident and that their airspace was being violated? It's all about local politics. The Communist party still rules China and that rule is increasingly at risk. While the communists have managed to turn a bankrupt command economy into a prospering market driven one, all the new wealth has proven too tempting for many larcenous party officials and government bureaucrats. The corruption has been getting out of hand. There is growing public unrest. Demonstrations, riots, and assassinations are more common. The communists recognize the value of clean government. One of the big initial attractions of the pre-World War II communists was their vow to stamp out all forms of corruption. That they did, for about two decades. Then it began to creep back in. The disastrous "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960s was an attempt to keep government clean and strictly communist. That effort failed, and China began moving towards a market economy and more corrupt government. The communist leadership has been cracking down in the corruption, even to the point of executing senior officials. Progress has been slow and, fearful of a full blown revolution, and sensing the need for additional public support, the government has been portraying America as China's primary enemy. This has not been hard to do, for from the beginning of communist rule in China, America was the bad guy. Partly because we had backed the previous (Nationalist) government and partly because we were the largest anti-communist nation out there. Although America is a major trading partner with China, the U.S. has also been constantly criticizing China for human rights abuses and lack of democracy. While this is correct from the American point of view, the average Chinese sees corruption as the major human rights problem and democracy something they put second to economic prosperity. Criticism by a foreign nation is unpopular with the Chinese people and the government has been quick to exploit this. Another exploitable angle was growing Chinese nationalism. Since the late 19th century, China has suffered one humiliation after an other at the hands of foreigners. The government, taking credit for the striking economic growth of late, points out that a stronger China will mean no more getting dissed by barbarians (non-Chinese are commonly referred to as barbarians.) The Chinese people ate it up, as they had not enjoyed this tasty morsel for generations. China was going to get it's place in the sun. Ironically, this same attitude was widespread in Germany a century ago and led to World Wars I and II. It's dangerous stuff.

Rather than admit that ill-trained and disciplined pilots, flying second rate aircraft, flew into an unarmed four engine aircraft over international waters, there was the option of blaming it all on the Americans. The population, pumped up by half a century of anti-American propaganda and rising Chinese nationalism, agreed to this fiction. 

But there's another political angle at work here. The older communist revolutionaries are dying off and a new generation is taking over. There are several competing factions and none of them can afford to be seen as "soft on Americans." So no matter how absurd the official story of what happened to the EP-3, any political leader pointing out the absurdity would quickly become an ex-leader. Thus China must insist on an American apology for the misdeeds of their aircraft. If the apology is not forthcoming, and the plane and its crew is released, a lot of Chinese politicians see their careers take a major hit. Then again, the longer this drags out, the more incensed the American public becomes. People start talking about a military solution, or trade restrictions. 

Ah, nostalgia. Seems like 1914 all over again.

 

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