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Past Issue
9 April 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 15

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Chinese Spy Plane Collides with U.S. Fighter Near Pensacola

As we try to get China to return our spy plane's crew, imagine our reaction if a Chinese spy plane were to crash-land on a military base inside the U.S.

by Jerome F. Winzig

Suppose one day we heard a news report like the following:

PENSACOLA, FLA. (AP) -- At 8:05 a.m. on the morning of April 1, a spy plane from Communist China collided in mid-air with a U.S. F-13 fighter jet over the Gulf of Mexico about 60 miles south of Pensacola, Florida. The pilot of the U.S. jet lost control and crashed in the ocean off the coast of Fort Walton Beach. The pilot, Lt. John Jones of Fort Collins, Colorado, father of one, is missing. The Chinese turboprop, which sustained serious damage to its nose cone, one wing, and a propeller, entered U.S. airspace before making an unauthorized emergency landing at Elgin Air Force Base in Valpariso, Florida, east of Pensacola.

The Chinese spy plane, a Shenyang J6 with a crew of 24, was based at the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force base in Managua, Nicaragua. Apparently, it was conducting electronic surveillance south of New Orleans when two F-13 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the Chinese plane. The two fighters accompanied the plane for 100 miles as it flew south of New Orleans and Pensacola.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the collision was the "inevitable result" of 50 years of Chinese aerial surveillance in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the Chinese government warned the U.S. not to board the plane, asserting it was "sovereign Chinese territory."

This imaginary account in no way implies that the United States should not support our 24 U.S. service men and women who are currently being held on Hainan island in China at this time. It does not mean that the American spy plane being held there caused the April 1 mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet. It does not excuse the Chinese government's use of the incident for propaganda purposes. It does not suggest that U.S. planes cannot fly over international waters. It does not infer that the United States' military should cease being vigilant. It does not propose that the United States should undertake an isolationist foreign policy.

Nonetheless, we in the United States should try to see our actions as others in the world see them. Unlike the imaginary scenario described above, China does not have military bases anywhere near the United States. It does not conduct regular electronic surveillance flights along our coastlines.

However, the United States does have a permanent military base near China, on Okinawa, where the U.S. spy plane was based. The American plane was flying about 60 miles off the coast of China, and the United States has conducted such reconnaissance flights near China for 50 years.

There are aspects of China's government that are cause for serious concern. China is not a democracy. Its human rights record and its stance on freedom of religion leave much to be desired. Its military still has undue influence on the government. It provides weapons to rogue states around the world.

But China is also home to an ancient civilization. It has a population five times that of the United States. Its people have the same kinds of concerns that we would have if another powerful nation were regularly flying military aircraft along our coastlines. It is arrogant for us to act as though we have been appointed the world's policeman. It is foolhardy for to disregard the pride and feelings of other countries.

There are consequences for such arrogance. Unfortunately, 24 American service men and women are now paying that cost on Hainan island. By flying spy planes along the Chinese coast as though we owned the world, we have helped create a very difficult dilemma. The Chinese military has made it worse by insisting that the United States apologize. But even without that militant stance, it would be very hard for the Chinese government to let our men and women go, just as it is very hard for President Bush not to take a stern line with the Chinese government.

Now each nation needs to find a way to help the other nation save face and avoid looking weak or foolish. That's not an easy task. But a little understanding would be a lot better than having the American and Chinese people killing each other.

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     Minneapolis, Minnesota

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