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Big Picture: High stakes in standoff

CNN has obtained this photo of some of the crew members  

TOPLINE: A U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II surveillance aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing April 1 on Hainan Island off the coast of China after a midair collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet. The Chinese jet crashed into the South China Sea, and its pilot is presumed dead. The U.S. Navy plane managed to land safely with its crew uninjured. China is holding the 24-member American crew in what authorities there call "protective custody."

IN CONTEXT: U.S. officials say the Navy plane left Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, for a routine patrol mission and was in international airspace when the collision occurred. U.S. President George Bush has demanded the return of the crew and the damaged spy plane.

Chinese officials counter that U.S. military planes should not fly so close to China. They add that the spy plane intruded into Chinese airspace after it had suffered damage and that the U.S. crew lost immunity once it landed in China without permission. Beijing maintains that the U.S. crew violated international law and that an investigation into the crash is ongoing. Chinese officials have demanded a formal apology from the United States.

On April 5, Bush offered his personal regrets at the apparent loss of the Chinese pilot but stopped short of apologizing for the mishap. Bush reiterated the U.S. demand for the immediate release of the crew and the return of the damaged plane. The United States proposes that an investigation into the collision should be a joint effort between the two governments.

U.S. diplomats have been allowed to meet with the detained crew members and report that they are "in good health and high spirits." While a senior Pentagon official has said that the crew destroyed sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment on the plane, analysts were divided over whether the Chinese could still learn about U.S. surveillance techniques from studying the plane itself.

The standoff comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations. Bush is due to decide soon whether to approve a Taiwanese request for the United States to supply it with advanced weapons and defense systems. Beijing has warned that the sale of such weapons could trigger a cross-straits war.

KEY QUESTIONS:
  • If the situation were reversed, would the United States accept Chinese spy planes flying close to its borders?
  • Did the U.S. spy plane violate international law?
  • How will this incident affect U.S.-China relations in both the short and long term?
  • Is China stalling in the negotiations with U.S. officials to buy time for studying the workings of the U.S. plane and surveillance technology?
  • How will the politics of both countries affect the efforts of the two leaders to resolve the issue?
  • KEY PLAYERS:
  • Chinese President Jiang Zemin: While Jiang has made overtures for improving relations with the United States, he has made it clear that he is exasperated by continued U.S. surveillance flights. He has also stood firm against the Taiwanese request for the United States to supply it with advanced weapons.

  • U.S. President George W. Bush: After just a few months in the White House, Bush is under pressure to pass the crucial test posed by his first potential international crisis. His immediate goal of gaining the release of the detained crew members and the damaged plane must be tempered by the long-term impact on U.S. relations with the Asian giant.

  • Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan: Tang has faulted the U.S. spy plane for bumping into the Chinese jet fighter. The Chinese media has quoted him saying he hoped "the incident will not lead to tension in bilateral ties."

  • U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell: The top U.S. diplomat official sent a personal letter to Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen appealing for the immediate release of the U.S. crew. "We regret that the Chinese plane did not get down safely," Powell told reporters. "But now, we need to move on. We need to bring this to a resolution."

  • Yang Jiechi: China's ambassador to the United States, Yang has said, "This is a very serious incident, so the Chinese side has every right to carry out (an) investigation The crew members are in China because the investigation is going on."

  • Joseph Prueher: The U.S. ambassador to China is involved in "intense talks" in Beijing to try to resolve the standoff.

  • Wang Wei: Wang's jet plunged into the South China Sea following the collision with the U.S. spy plane. China has eulogized the apparent death of the missing Chinese fighter pilot. The Pentagon has said it has a photo of the pilot taken during a previous close encounter with U.S. aircraft.

  • Zhao Yu: A Chinese fighter pilot, Zhao told Chinese television that as he and fellow fighter pilot Wang shadowed the U.S. plane, the U.S. plane suddenly swerved into Wang's plane, sending it crashing into the sea.

  • BOTTOM LINE:
  • Bush and Jiang's handling of the standoff could set the tone for U.S.-China relations for years to come.


  • RELATED STORIES:
    China-U.S. diplomacy battle over spy plane
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    Plane crew safe, China assures U.S.
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    U.S. Navy study 'backs Taiwan arms upgrade'
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    RELATED SITES:
    USCINCPAC Homepage
    The Pentagon
    U.S. Navy
    Navy Fact File: EP-3E ORION (ARIES II) Aircraft
    U.S. Department of Defense
    Government of China (in Chinese)
    U.S. Department of State
    Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the U.S.A.
    Government Information Office, Republic of China

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