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U.S. Spy Plane, Chinese Fighter Collide Over Sea

Asia: American craft with a crew of 24 lands safely on China's Hainan island, while the other reportedly crashes. Incident strains already shaky bilateral relations.

April 02, 2001|HENRY CHU and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIJING — A U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided Sunday over the South China Sea, causing the American craft to make an emergency landing in China and the Chinese plane to crash, U.S. and Chinese officials said.

The 24 crew members aboard the EP-3 U.S. reconnaissance plane were unhurt, but U.S. defense officials said they have been unable to establish contact with the crew since the craft came to ground on Hainan island, a Chinese province off the country's southern coast. The pilot of the downed Chinese jet was reported missing.

American diplomats from Beijing were to arrive this morning on Hainan to press for the release of the crew and plane, but it remained unclear how the Chinese would respond. The incident puts more strain on increasingly shaky Sino-U.S. relations.

U.S. officials said they would not be able to determine responsibility for the incident until they talked to crew members. They also warned the Chinese not to enter the top-secret aircraft, which the Americans insisted was "sovereign territory."

China blamed the U.S. for the crash, which occurred about 9:15 a.m. Sunday in China (5:15 p.m. Saturday PST).

Two Chinese F-8 fighters were conducting "normal flight operations" about 65 miles southeast of Hainan when the American EP-3 suddenly veered toward one of the Chinese jets, a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

"The nose and left wing of the U.S. plane hit the Chinese plane and caused it to crash," the statement said, adding that rescue crews were searching for the downed Chinese pilot.

"The U.S. should bear full responsibility," declared Zhu Bangzao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

But Adm. Dennis Blair, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said "common sense" suggests that the lighter, faster Chinese jets caused the collision with the heavier, clumsier EP-3, which is about the size of a Boeing 737.

"Big airplanes like this fly straight and level on their path. Little airplanes zip around them," Blair told reporters in Honolulu. "It's pretty obvious who bumped into who. I'm going on common sense now because I haven't talked to our crew."

According to U.S. officials, the American craft was on a routine surveillance mission out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, when the two fighter jets came up alongside the EP-3 and "intercepted" it.

Although the intentions of the Chinese pilots were unclear, when "two fighter jets come up on [you], they're generally not coming up to say hi," said Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command.

Kelly said the EP-3 and one of the Chinese planes bumped into each other, causing enough damage that the pilot of the American craft issued a mayday distress signal and landed the disabled plane at an airfield on Hainan.

Kelly said that under international convention, "any military aircraft is essentially sovereign territory of its owner. So it cannot either be boarded, seized or inspected without the express permission of the U.S. government."

U.S. defense officials said they expected China to "respect the integrity of the aircraft and the well-being and safety of the crew" and to facilitate the repair and return of the EP-3. Beijing said "proper arrangements" had been made for the U.S. crew but did not say where they were.

Sunday's collision is likely to complicate already edgy relations between Washington and Beijing, including on the military front. A few months ago, a high-level People's Liberation Army officer defected to the U.S. in an embarrassing setback for Beijing. In China, authorities have arrested two scholars with U.S. ties and charged one with spying.

This month, the Bush administration is to decide on an arms package for Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory. Supporters of Taiwan on Capitol Hill have urged the White House to sell the island advanced weapons, including several naval destroyers, to increase its ability to fend off any attack from the mainland.

U.S. officials said the air maneuvers leading up to Sunday's crash are not uncommon, with an intercept by Chinese planes occurring in about one of every three U.S. patrol flights along the Chinese coast. But Blair said that the intercepts "have become more aggressive" over the last couple of months. The U.S. has protested about the "pattern of increasingly unsafe behavior" but "did not get a satisfactory response," he said.

U.S. Aircraft Belongs to Sophisticated Class

The collision appeared to be the first between Chinese and American military planes.

The EP-3 belongs to a sophisticated class of land-based, long-range, anti-submarine patrol aircraft. Military analysts say that it contains top-of-the-line electronic data-gathering equipment that can intercept telephone calls and e-mail as well as radar and fax data.

Military analysts said the crew members would be able to erase all data and disable the surveillance equipment if such moves were deemed necessary.

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