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Burden of Proof

China Boards U.S. Spy Plane

Aired April 3, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, the United States has learned Chinese officials have boarded and begun removing equipment from the stranded U.S. spy plane.


ZHU BANGZAO, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN: The responsibility lies fully with the U.S. side. China is the victim. The damaged aircraft is Chinese. The missing pilot is Chinese. It was the U.S. plane which entered Chinese air space in violation of relevant regulations and landed on Chinese territory without permission.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: The Chinese have to grow up, it seems to me, to be very blunt about it. They want to be part of the international community, the fact is, we're spying on them, we're checking them out in the South China Sea and their navy. They've got to understand that. And we have to understand that they're going to be following our flights. But this is an incredibly immature action on their part.


ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

The situation between the U.S. and China is intensifying. There have been meetings and briefings all morning. A short time ago, U.S. diplomats in China began meeting with the crewmembers from the U.S. plane. The U.S. was preparing to classify them as hostages.

In the verbal attacks and counter-attacks, Beijing is demanding an apology from the U.S. for the accident. Among the charges by Chinese officials, the U.S. plane violated international law, invaded Chinese air space and landed on Chinese territory without permission.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials say there will be no apology for the accident. The situation could jeopardize already strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Beijing.

Joining us to talk more about this breaking story are from New York, former U.S. ambassador to China, Stapleton Roy. Here in Washington, Liz Baviars (ph), Jim Feinerman, who's a professor of Asian legal studies, and retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Eric McVaden, Jason Litwiack (ph) and Sisak Vermuri (ph).

And joining us today from the Pentagon is CNN's military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre -- Jamie, bring us up to date on where this so-called, maybe a stand-off might be a good description, but where we stand on this.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, U.S. diplomats have been able to meet with the 24 members of the U.S. spy plane. That meeting is going on now. But meanwhile, U.S. intelligence indicates that the Chinese not only boarded the plane, which the U.S. claims is a violation of international convention, but also apparently have begun removing some equipment from the plane. Pentagon sources will not say the basis of that information, just that given the information they have, the most likely explanation is that Chinese officials appear to be removing equipment from the plane.

This doesn't bode well in the Pentagon's view either for getting the plane back any time soon or even getting it back at all. The U.S. obviously is concerned about the transfer of technology to the Chinese, seeing the latest eavesdropping equipment that's on that plane. The crew did radio back that they were beginning the process of destroying and disabling the equipment. A lot of that involves erasing software. But it's unclear how much they got done before the plane landed on the ground and was boarded by armed military personnel in China.

So that's where things stand now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jamie, is there any information on the condition of confinement or even the condition of the crewmembers?

MCINTYRE: Not here at the Pentagon and that's one of the things that they've been quite concerned about. A lot of the folks at the Pentagon were scratching their heads about why China didn't at least release the crew earlier as a gesture of good will. It was seen, really, as an opportunity for the Chinese government to show that it's willing to take the high road and that it's interested in a better relationship with the United States. Even if it hung onto the plane, it could have released the crew much sooner.

People here were beginning to wonder if they were going to be classified as hostages. Now there's some expectation with this initial meeting going on that maybe that will lead to a speedy release of the crew. But until they've actually talked to them, they really don't know about their conditions of confinement.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, let me ask about the hostages. What does it mean to classify them as hostages, anything?

JIM FEINERMAN, PROFESSOR OF ASIAN LEGAL STUDIES: Well, it means that they're being held in violation of public international law and the international customary law and conventions that were talked about earlier. And it also would mean that from our perspective... VAN SUSTEREN: But that's simply our -- the U.S. declaration and the U.S. position that they name hostages. I mean it doesn't subject China to any recourse.

FEINERMAN: Well, it doesn't subject them to any recourse, but it does suggest that, for example, subsequently we might demand damages for their being held as hostages in violation of international law, whereas if they were just temporarily there, if they were being treated as victims of an accident rather than held against their will as hostages, we would have no recourse of our own under international law to request damages subsequently.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jamie, how good is the information or what is the source of information the media has that this American plane was not flying in Chinese air space?

MCINTYRE: Well, I don't think there's really any dispute about where the plane was. Both China and the United States agree that it was about 70 miles off the coast of China. The disagreement is over the Chinese claim of what constitutes their air space and what the U.S. says is recognized by international law, essentially a, you know, the 12, the traditional 12 mile boundary.

And there's also some dispute, obviously, about what happened, whether the U.S. plane ran into the Chinese plane or the Chinese planes ran into the U.S. plane. That's, again, something that won't be able to be sorted out entirely until they talk to the crew, although the U.S. says the early evidence is that the U.S. spy plane was flying in a straight and level flight and that one of the Chinese planes, apparently trying to keep up with it, these fighter planes have a little trouble flying as slow as these big propeller driven planes. He may have executed a dangerous maneuver.

The point here, though, is the United States has been complaining for months to China that, not that they have a problem with these intercepts, but in the way that they're done. They've been increasingly aggressive. The planes have been getting closer, within 50 feet of some of the U.S. aircraft, and the U.S. issued a demarche to China back at the end of December. There have been ongoing discussions with them over the last couple of months about conducting these intercepts in a much safer manner.

VAN SUSTEREN: Admiral, in terms of who bumped who first or whether it was a collision, how is that determined and what difference does it make at this point?

ERIC MCVADEN, FORMER REAR ADMIRAL, U.S. NAVY: Well, I hope that one of the ways it might be determined is if they have a videotape on the airplane. But maybe I'm just hoping for that. There certainly is a prospect that that was the case.

The safest thing to do under those circumstances when you're intercepted is to fly straight and level and there are all sorts of other scenarios that could have developed. Maybe the two airplanes were in such a way that the EP-3 pilot felt he had to maneuver and ended up doing what the Chinese said, though I don't find their explanation terribly appealing.

But maybe there was a mistake, a mutual mistake. But whatever happened, it certainly was a mistake. This kind of intercept should be able to be carried out without that sort of difficulty, of course.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Ambassador, what do you make of this? Has this provoked in this sort of cat and mouse game that at least sort of appears a little bit, at least to me as a bystander, between the U.S. and China? What, why was this, why now?

STAPLETON ROY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: It was an unfortunate accident. It occurred because two planes are in close proximity to each other. We don't know the exact circumstances. I don't think we should see anything deliberate behind the fact that the incident occurred. It's a serious but manageable incident and I'm confident that both sides will find a way to manage it properly.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are you suggesting, Mr. Ambassador, that this sort of event is constantly occurring where American spy planes are along, near China and China is constantly tracking us, that it's just that, but for the fact that this time they had a bumping or a collision, that's the only thing unusual at this point?

ROY: This has been going on for decades. The question of how close the Chinese planes come is a separate issue. But the fact that we have been flying along the Chinese coast for a long time and the fact that the Chinese track our flights and in some cases send up planes, this is something that's routine and that's been happening for a long time.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a...

MCVADEN: I was first intercepted by Chinese fighters in 1962.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you're here to tell us about it?

MCVADEN: That's right.

VAN SUSTEREN: You're a lucky man.

We're going to take a break. We'll be right back with more. Stay with us.


Lionel Tate's attorneys filed an appeal Monday to have his first- degree murder conviction overturned. Tate, 14, was sentenced to life in prison last month for the 1999 beating death of a 6-year-old playmate.



VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back. Admiral, before we went to break you said that you have been the subject of a chase. What's it like to be a pilot and have a country that may be unfriendly chasing you?

MCVADEN: Well, it was rather routine when the Soviets did it because we expected it all the time. But there in 1962 the incident I mentioned when the Chinese fighters came out, it was into the Sea of Japan, which meant they had to cross either the Soviet Union or North Korea. We thought they just might be serious about doing something. So I turned for base and accelerated as rapidly as I could and dove for a cloud bank, a fog bank off the sea and ran from them and, of course, I kind of hate to put it in those words now, but that's precisely what I did, because in an airplane like that, this was a P- 2, the predecessor of the P-3, you're unarmed so you don't have any choice but to try to get away.

VAN SUSTEREN: Terrifying or exciting? I think you used the word exciting with me and I said to you that it sounds terrifying if I look out the window and someone is chasing me.

MCVADEN: Well, I guess that what happens is because you're the one who has to do something about it is that you probably go, grow cooler rather than more alarmed in trying to figure out precisely what you can do and, of course, if they happen to fire their heat seeking missiles and your tactics didn't work to escape from them, well, that's just the fate you'll have to accept.

But I think that's generally what happens, that people will approach it in a kind of workman like way, almost.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, boarding the airplane, under international law, do the Chinese have a right to board that aircraft?

FEINERMAN: It doesn't seem so. I know that they've made the claim that they believe that they do. But it seems to me that the nearest analog here is a damaged ship or, in this case, an airplane that sort of makes it into the nearest safe harbor. It's supposed to be accorded, at least as a matter of custom and general international practice, that kind of safety. Medical treatment should be provided for anyone who needs it and the ship and the crew should be left unmolested.

VAN SUSTEREN: Has China signed onto agreements to do this?

FEINERMAN: Well, again, this is not a matter of treaty. It's not the kind of thing that you will find written down as a matter of public international law. But it's a longstanding practice with, in the shipping and naval area, centuries of experience.

MCVADEN: And Greta, we could hope that the Chinese would imagine the shoe on the other foot one of these days and see that if they had one of their ships that was somehow damaged and came into port or an airplane under similar circumstances, they would certainly not expect that the U.S. would incarcerate the crew and board the airplane into those classified spaces and so forth. VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Ambassador, you know, we have a good idea of how Americans look at this situation. You were the ambassador. How do the, how are the Chinese people and the Chinese government, how are they looking at this incident?

ROY: I think there, there are elements in the Chinese government that very clearly recognize that this is a potentially serious incident and don't want to blow it up. And we see evidence that the Chinese government has not been fanning up the incident the way they did the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade.

On the other hand, the Chinese people as a whole will tend to view this as an American operation on their doorstep and therefore they won't look at it from a legal standpoint, they'll look at it as a question of why is the United States operating this close to our territory?

VAN SUSTEREN: But you're saying they're not blowing it up or making it into, essentially into a bigger deal than it is, but Jim says that they shouldn't be boarding the aircraft, yet they are boarding the aircraft and there are reports that they're pulling things off the aircraft. We know that there is surveillance equipment there. So it certainly sounds a little more escalated than come take your plane and here are your crewmembers.

ROY: The Chinese aren't boarding the aircraft in order to escalate the incident. The Chinese are boarding the aircraft, presumably because they want to find out what was on there and exploit the intelligence windfall that has fallen into their hands. The collateral problem is that that may, indeed, make it more difficult to deal with us on the question.

But the Chinese government as a whole is not playing up the news of this incident. It is not fanning the flames in an inflammatory way.


FEINERMAN: I mean the Chinese have criticized the United States side for publicizing the event. They claim that if things had been kept quiet, if the American news media hadn't been alerted to this, that it might have been settled quietly behind-the-scenes but now it's out in the open.

VAN SUSTEREN: Admiral...

ROY: But that again reflects the unrealistic expectation on the Chinese side that we could somehow handle this quietly. And I would caution us also to not set unrealistic expectations for how the Chinese will be able to handle it. They've lost a military aircraft. They've potentially lost a pilot. There are going to be internal debates in China over how to hold people responsibility for that.

VAN SUSTEREN: And a fascinating ongoing story. I wish I had you gentlemen here to talk more, but we're out of time. That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching. Today on CNN's TALK BACK LIVE, should the U.S. issue an apology to China? Send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 P.M. Eastern Time. Darryl Strawberry back in custody after disappearing for days and Florida prosecutors want to lock him up. Tonight on "THE POINT," we'll talk with the assistant state attorney from Florida who wants Strawberry back in jail.

And I'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.



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