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Falling toward the earth, the nose of their spy plane sheared off by a Chinese fighter pilot, the 24 American crew members contemplated death, prepared for and abandoned a hasty bailout maneuver, then set about a task whose implications reached far beyond their own lives. Smashing equipment and destroying data, the reconnaissance team sought to keep sensitive technology and information out of Chinese hands.
No matter how energetically the Bush administration tries to cloak the April 1 collision in layers of heroism, unsettling questions persist. How much was left on the plane? Have the Chinese now learned enough about the latest American systems to jar the region's balance of power? Even if the brave crew managed to erase every computer tape on board the EP-3E, say military insiders, China may still have obtained a treasure trove of intelligence, which it can useand which it can sell to others.
The plane itself was a souped-up model of the standard spycraft. According to Jane's Naval Forces, the authoritative London-based military report that tracks weaponry across the world, "It has highly classified equipment on board, including real-time satellite links and the ability to 'fuse' the various sensor readings with previously known data to detect changes." Among its systems was a means of reporting electronic intercepts directly to NATO and other allies.
Japan, which is especially paranoid about China and had received transmissions from the American plane, recently began sending aloft aircraft with similar data links. Now that China can dissect and study that technology, Japan is worried the Red Army will be able to jam its improved systems. China might also sell the secrets to North Korea or Russia, giving them a military advantage.
As skittish as Japan is, Taiwan has yet more to lose. The island nation, considered a breakaway colony by China, uses U.S. computing equipment for its electronic warfare operations. The Taipei brass, reported Jane's, is afraid that these systems, which are set up to foil Chinese missile launchers, "will be rendered useless by the capture of the EP-3E."
All this surveillance has been made more intense by other recent events. The Chinese are always concerned about quarreling among Asian nations over control of the Spratly Islands, a group of atolls that may (or may not) overlay oil and gas resources. China maintains military outposts in the Spratlys. And the Chinese fear that increased action by the U.S. and its Southeast Asian allies bodes trouble, especially in light of the military buildup in Singapore, where the Japanese obtained recent permission to base their ships and planes.
In one sense, the coasts of South Asia form a sort of no-man's-land where the U.S. and its allies test the will and might of the Chinese. We are constantly scouting this front, sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of our potential enemy.
For months now, the Chinese fighters have aggressively harassed regular spy plane runs up and down the coast. When Japan and Taiwan send out recon fliers these days, they're accompanied by fighter escorts. Sea lanes are no less contested. The spy plane collision followed a similarly dangerous situation in late March, when a Chinese frigate came close to firing at the Bowditch, a U.S. underwater surveillance craft.
Chinese and American leaders are set to hold talks about the situation on Wednesday. Since the release of the crew, Bush has adopted a forceful tone, blaming the Chinese and renewing interest in selling the Aegis defense system to the Taiwanese military. Additionally, the administration may station an aircraft carrier off China's southern coast, where it could send fighter pilots to protect U.S. spy planes. Bush's energy task force, whose secret meetings made the front page of The Washington Post Monday, will almost certainly focus on guarding future oil supplies from the Mideastbarrels that are shipped through the seas off China and are of paramount importance to that nation, too.
First, Bush needs to hammer out a clear set of rules for engagement, similar to the ones that governed U.S. and Soviet actions during the Cold War. If the hawks of the Republican right wingstill containing remnants of the old anti-China lobby along with the Contra supporters who have been twiddling their thumbs for the last eight yearsreally want to make trouble, they will push Bush to become more aggressive in the wild territory along the coasts.
For starters, they're raising the ancientand largely speciousbugaboo of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Independent defense experts dismiss that notion, saying the best the Chinese and their pathetic navy could hope for would be to blockade Taiwan, cutting off its fuel and food supplies. Fat chance of that happening, analysts say, since the Chinese don't have enough ships for such an operation. And despite the public saber-rattling, behind the scenes China and Taiwan are working out the practicalities of increased trade and a common postal system.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has already laughed off what the Chinese consider their rightful claim. Facts tend to support the U.S. argument that its plane was well outside the internationally accepted limit of 12 miles. However, it's worth noting that under the Law of the Sea Treaty, states can claim territory up to 200 miles off their coast, in order to protect economic interests including petroleum and fishing. While we didn't sign the treaty, we have used the 200-mile limit as a rationale for throwing out Soviet and Japanese fishing ships from the waters along the northwest coast.
Under the treaty, nations have the right to fly within another country's 200-mile limit, except when doing so interferes with the economic interests. It's almost certain that future claims, especially to oil, gas, and other resources in South Asia, will invoke this provision. Enforcing the rules will fall to the United Nations, where China is a major player.
Bush can scarcely make a move in Asia without challenging the Chinese agenda. In Central Asia, the U.S. and other nations are trying to tie down the reportedly immense oil and gas reserves. The Chinese, for centuries a major power in Central Asia, also have their eyes on the oil. They now are busily making trade deals in the area, hoping to grab a good portion of the newly found resource. China also is considering building a pipeline that would run from former Soviet Union states in Central Asia east through the Xinjiang semiautonomous zone, a huge swath of China jutting into the territory.
The web of interests and claims would puzzle Solomon. For Bush, saddled with a heritage of conflict and hardly known as a great improviser, nothing in this region will come easily.
Additional reporting: Adam Gray and Rouven Gueissaz