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The Fate of the American Surveillance Plane

Aired April 18, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Just days after the return of the U.S. crew, another skirmish between the U.S. and China...


RICHARD BOUCHER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: If there's any question about it, we want our airplane back. And we're going to make that point. And we expect to get a response.


COSSACK: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, diplomats face off in Beijing over an American surveillance plane, which was forced to land in China over three weeks ago, and the legal rights of the U.S. to fly missions over the South China Sea.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's very, very close.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's almost -- probably 20 feet from our wing tip. Actually, he's inside of our wing tip.



ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has made it clear on many occasions that the United States reserves at all times the right to fly reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace.


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

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

For more than three hours today, an American delegation met with Chinese diplomats about an April 1st air collision between a U.S. EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The meeting, held in Beijing, began at 3:00 p.m. Beijing time, 3:00 a.m. Eastern time in the United States. American officials say the Chinese, quote, "would not engage," end quote, on the issue of returning the U.S. plane. And the standoff could threaten future meetings between the two nations.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: On the eve of today's diplomatic face-off, the Pentagon released videotape of midair confrontations between U.S. surveillance planes and Chinese fighter jets. The U.S. Defense Department says the tapes support its claim that Chinese pilots have been flying aggressively around American planes.

COSSACK: Joining us today from New Haven, Connecticut is international law professor Ruth Wedgwood -- excuse me, Ruth -- a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From New York, former Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg.

VAN SUSTEREN: And here in Washington: Bryan Jones, Bryan Bender, the D.C. bureau chief for Stratford, an intelligence consulting firm, and Chris Eilerson (ph). And in the back: Erin Grimes (ph), Michelle Truelove (ph), and Christine Hills-Grove (ph).

Bryan, first to you. What do you make of the fact there seems to be, at least at this point, a stalemate on the discussions?

BRYAN BENDER, MILITARY AND SECURITY EXPERT: Well, I don't think it is very surprising at all. The 24 crewmen were returned last week. The Bush administration ratcheted up the rhetoric: the Chinese are at fault, the surveillance flights will continue, we want our plane back. And I think the Chinese response today is not really surprising.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, Bryan, what in the world does the U.S. have in term of leverage to get that plane back? I mean, what, the plane is sitting there, and the Chinese have it.

BENDER: Well, I mean, at this point certainly the biggest leverage would be the question of trade, punishing China if they continue to drag their feet. But I think at this point getting the plane back is more principle than anything else. The plane obviously has been taken apart by the Chinese, they have learned everything they are going to, and quite frankly may be so damaged that it couldn't return to service anyway.

VAN SUSTEREN: But principle, of course, can be extremely dangerous thing to be fighting about.

COSSACK: Ruth, is the airplane a red herring? I mean, does the United States really expect to get that plane back? From what we understand, it's damaged. It's probably non-flyable. At best, we will get it back in crates. The Chinese know pretty much everything about it. Is it really a big issue?

RUTH WEDGWOOD, INTERNATIONAL LAW PROFESSOR: I agree its scrap value is probably really very low. China has already pored over it and decrypted it and reverse engineered it thoroughly. So it's probably more symbolic.

But at the same time, the Chinese are using it as the symbol of their claim that our entry into their airspace was improper. And in that sense, their return of the airplane is a willingness to finally step down from that more truculent claim.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, the plane, Ruth described as scrap value. I think its price tag originally was $80 million. It looks like it's still probably workable, I mean worth getting back to do some flying.

But is it smart tactically that this becomes sort of the -- this is the principle. Is that smart tactically for the United States?

JIM STEIN BERG, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I don't think that's really the focus of what the discussions are going to be about. I think it's going to be about understanding the broader relationship, and particularly trying to understand some rules of the road, either explicit or implicit, can be developed about how the United States and China are going to conduct themselves militarily, particularly with respect to these kinds of reconnaissance missions.

COSSACK: Bryan, do the Chinese really believe or is this the rhetoric that the United States will stop flying in what is generally regarded international waters, will stop flying air missions like the one this plane was on? Or do they really believe they can stop that?

BENDER: I don't think they do. I think what we are seeing here is similar to what we saw during the standoff with the crewmembers being detained.

China is going to try and play their cards as much as possible. And I think they are well aware the U.S. is not going to stop these surveillance flights. But they are pursuing that route in hopes that the U.S. will give them something, or at least something they can take and show to the People's Liberation Army, to the Chinese public, "Hey, we won one-up on the United States." But, no, I think it would be foolish for them to think the U.S. is going to back down and not fly these aircraft anymore.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, the issue of trade that Bryan discussed a moment ago, that's the leverage that the U.S. may have going into these negotiation. But tell me about the trade. Is the trade not mutually beneficial to both sides? I mean, is there such a clear winner on the trade issue so that is such enormous leverage?

STEINBERG: Absolutely it's beneficial on both sides. And I think that that's one of the reasons why the Chinese ultimately moved to release the crewmen and will want to find a way to develop a modus operandi with the United States.

China's number one priority is economic growth. They can't sustain their political leadership unless they have that growth. And so they need American investment. They need American technology. And it's a very important factor they have to keep in mind in terms how far they will push this.

VAN SUSTEREN: But it's also important to the United States. Is it big enough stick so that in terms of leverage the United States has the far greater edge in terms of when you talk about the bargaining value of the trade issue?

STEINBERG: I wouldn't see it as leverage. It really is potential win-win for both sides that we both understand that solving these problems allow us both to reap the economic benefits of a relationship. So it's more of an incentive than a stick.

COSSACK: So, Ruth, if this is true that in fact the leverages with the United States in that they possess the ability to press the trade button and the Chinese need that, how do you figure out an agenda where face-saving is important apparently from the Chinese in terms of keeping that plane, and yet not pushing them into a position where we end up with not encouraging the trade?

WEDGWOOD: Well, sometimes the obscurity of consultative commissions is just what you want. And in it, the Chinese would be given equal voice. It's a bilateral relationship. So it would give them a certain dignity. And it would behoove us I think to have something like the incidents On and Over the Sea Treaty or understanding we had with the Soviets starting in 1972, which encouraged safe following distances and discourage reckless flying, provided a mechanism for consultation.

But ultimately I agree with Jim that the Chinese would be cutting off their nose to spite their face. They have export-led growth. And while we need them in the long term as a large market for our products, we at the moment have plenty of other sources of cheap labor so that in fact the Chinese have much to gain from this.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ruth, wasn't this sort of the effort to sort of, the trade issue, wasn't that also seen from a bigger picture from an American perspective is that as you open up the markets that China would see sort of the pleasures and the greatness about democracy, and that would somehow help evaporate some of the human rights issues? It would open China up to the world.

WEDGWOOD: That's the argument if in fact they want to be attractive to investment they have to then give you stable rules on property and repatriation of profits, which gives them a more legalistic mentality, which ultimately could bleed over into human rights. Plus, you have many more people coming in to watch to see what is going on.

That is I think is long-term argument, which is plausible although not proven. But I think for the moment we have to remain with a kind of wary engagement in which -- Jim Shin (ph), who is a fellow over at the council, actually once came up with a lovely phase, a kind of a virtual containment in which they realize that we are equally ready to change direction and stand down and be much more antagonistic if need be.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we take a quick break. Up next, could the American spy plane cause a U.S.-China cold war? Stay with us.


REAR ADM. CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: We could consider sending in a repair team of some sort with the appropriate parts and the tools and the auxiliary equipment you need to effect the repairs and fly the plane out. If that is -- if that plane is not flyable or if that solution is not acceptable for the Chinese for one reason or another, an alternative might be to literally disassemble the plane and then figure out a way to either fly the parts airplane off the island or ship them off the island in crates or something. We simply haven't worked that through.



Jim, back to New York and follow up on our conversation we were having with Ruth before the break. You were in China in 1994 and again few weeks ago. Can you tell me to what extent the trade with the United States, how much China has change in that seven-year period.

STEINBERG: I think for the average Chinese, in their day-to-day life, it's changed quite a lot, particularly in the big cities coastal region. Economic prosperity is growing. Just look at technology. There were no Internet users then. There are 22.5 million now, 80 million cell phone users.

So in the personal life of most Chinese, there has been a real impact from this economic growth in trade. But, of course, it hasn't had an big impact on the broader political issues. It's still not possible to have political parties. It's still not possible to criticize leadership. So in personal freedom, yes, there's been a lot of change, but on those big political issues not much.

COSSACK: Bryan, we talked a little bit about the question of the Cold War. We remember the Cold War as something that we did with Russia, the former Soviet Union. But a cold war with China, is this the kind of -- the kind of face-to-face activity that could engender a cold war?

BENDER: Well, I think the spy plane incident is just one of many that has sort of pushed the United States and China on this road, kind a natural evolution towards a cold war, as you call it. I think we have to be careful not on use that kind terminology because we'll do what the military does, the Pentagon. And that's fight the last war.

Certainly, a cold war with China would be very different than it was with the Soviet Union. But there's no doubt that if you take the spy plane incident, arms sales to Taiwan, and the whole series of other issues, missile defense, that China is very wary the United States. I think there's no doubt over the next five years, 10 years, there's going to be more of a confrontational relationship there.

VAN SUSTEREN: But, Bryan, what does the U.S. get out of this? I mean, if you take a look at this incident, I would have declared big victory when the crew came home quickly and safely. And instead, the rhetoric from the Bush administration got stepped up. And now we've got this meeting we have this standoff. It's incredible how it seems to have been ratcheted up. What does the U.S. gain from ratcheting up this whatever we want to call it that we're having in China?

BENDER: I think you have to keep in mind that there are some hawks in the Bush administration who, for several years now, have placed China at the top of the radar screen. They are the future threat.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why? What do they want out of them?

BENDER: They want budgets. They want defense budgets.

VAN SUSTEREN: So this is about money for Defense Department.


BENDER: Certainly part of it is about that.

COSSACK: I think perhaps somewhat, but I think is a little somewhat disingenuous.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, what else?

COSSACK: Well, let me ask Ruth Wedgwood.

VAN SUSTEREN: You said...


COSSACK: Ruth is going to tell you. And if she can't, I will.

VAN SUSTEREN: I can't wait.

COSSACK: All right, Ruth, there's more to it than just defense budgets, than the notion of relationships, descriptions of relationships with China. For example, there's human rights, there's democracy, there's all those other issues rather than just the notion of building up defense budgets, right?

WEDGWOOD: Well, democracy doesn't necessarily help us in this kind of situation because the Chinese may also have a certain nationalism. But I think you have to look at the timing where if the Bush administration in fact wants to do a little bit less, perhaps, on the Taiwan arms sales -- not give them the Aegis guided missile destroyers, but rather the lower KID class destroyer -- and give them some diesel-powered submarines but not everything that the Taiwanese want, that in fact the rhetorical antagonism, stepping up the rhetoric, can help you cover that slightly less fulsome material sale.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ruth, maybe I'm thick, but I just don't get it. I mean, if what Jim says in the last seven or eight years China has change enormously and hopefully in the next seven years they are going to change far more, especially in issues of human rights.

COSSACK: In human consumer products.

VAN SUSTEREN: No, human rights, as the internet brings more communications from free world into China, why in the world would you now sort of step it up? The U.S. won when the crew came home. Why do you now step it up, create a bigger problem, create principle even over an aircraft so now we've undone what we were attempting to do before? What does the U.S. gain?

WEDGWOOD: Well, it's true that 22 million cell phones or Internet connections will eventually give you kind of a back chatter against the government line. But at the same time, you don't want the military leadership, who are the ones I think probably did provoke this incident, to suppose that you haven't got the staunchness of will to meet them toe-to-toe if necessary. We should be looking long-term. But when somebody provokes you, I don't think you can say, "Well, I'm seduced by trade. I'll do anything for trade."

VAN SUSTEREN: But wait a second. The U.S. was provoked. The U.S. won. Now it's in a situation where it becomes a matter of principle. And the Chinese are going to sort of back down. They're going to shut down. They're not going to want to communicate with the United States. We've now created a bigger problem.

WEDGWOOD: Well, I don't think we've won. We got our crewmen back. We lost an airplane. And I do think that the Chinese pilot's tactics amount to really what was an attempt to have some kind of altercation even if not an actual shoot down or force down.

But there's something between the short-term and the long-term. There's a medium-term in which we do have to be careful to both discourage China from what's been quite aggressive tactics toward Taiwan while at the same time not letting the President Chang of Taiwan become holstered in a way that would be unduly provocative as well.

COSSACK: See, I told you Ruth and I knew the...



VAN SUSTEREN: I wanted to hear your answer.

COSSACK: Well, let's take a break. When we come back, will the U.S. spy missions continue? Don't go away.


COSSACK: A collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet exposed a tense conflict between the two nations over American spy missions in the region.

Well, Jim, we talked about American spy missions in the region. And the consensus seems to be that these missions are going to continue on. With that in mind, how do the Chinese get into a position where they can agree to that?

STEINBERG: I think the missions will continue. I think the United States when it is operating in international airspace has a right to do that. But I think what's important is that United States and China begin to deepen their dialogue about these issues and come to some at least implicit understanding about how these activities are going to be done. It happened throughout the Cold War. Everybody knew that there would be certain kinds of risks associated with it. But there were mechanisms developed to deal with the potential for accidents.

We have mechanism that was negotiated during the Clinton administration, Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, that provides a framework for the two militaries to talk to each other. That's an important channel. It's important that that be continued because even if we disagree we need that kind of communication.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Jim, as I look at this, and maybe I look at it as a worst-case scenario -- lawyers oftentimes do look at things as worst-case scenarios -- but in light of the fact there seems to be a little -- there is somewhat of a standoff on this meeting earlier today, it seems to me if that continues and the flights resume that there's a greater potential for even more accidents unless the two countries can seem to work things out, that we might get some more aggressive Chinese pilots going after these surveillance planes.

STEINBERG: I think both sides understood from this episode tat this is in neither interest to have these kinds of episodes happen. And so while I would expect that the United States will continue its missions and you will certainly see Chinese fighters out there, I think there's reason to hope that both sides, and particularly the Chinese, will take some care about how this is done without conceding the point. And that's why these meetings are important.

China is not going to concede the point. But as long as we are talking, we're not fighting. And I think that that's really what this is all about now is for both sides to try to understand better about what the rules of the road are going to be, and what kind of overall relationship we are going to have.

If the overall relationship is going tolerably well, then we can deal with these episodes. They're not things that are necessarily things that people are looking to have happen, but will happen. If, on the other hand, the relationship is in a very tense and competitive shape, then these incidents can become much more serious.

COSSACK: Bryan, how is it you diplomatically negotiate something like this? If these are the ground rules that hopefully both sides know and this is posturing that the United States walked out today and said, "We're not going to continue discussing this until these items are back on the table." What happens that gets things going again?

BENDER: Well, I think Jim makes a good point. This isn't rocket science. These kinds of surveillance flights and fighters coming up to intercept and to monitor them have been going on for decades, certainly more so with the Soviet Union than China. China is a more recent addition I think, at least the frequency of these flights.

But there are rules for the road. I think in this case there's no doubt that the Chinese fighter was much more maneuverable than the American aircraft, which is a big lumbering prop plane. It t was the responsibility of that aircraft under international norms to maintain a safe distance because the EP-3 cannot quickly move out of the way.

VAN SUSTEREN: (INAUDIBLE) that sounds great, Bryan, that they're both supposed to follow certain rules. But the fact is that in the event that the two countries are still at a standoff, you run the risk that you're going to have an aggressive Chinese pilot who might have his nose particularly out of joint about losing a friend. And it can get more aggressive up in that sky if country is more at odds with United States than if they're on the same page.

BENDER: That's why I think it's so important to come up with these rules of the road because you are right. If the relationship continues to deteriorate, the rhetoric continues to be out there, then there's no doubt the U.S. could make a decision, "Well, we're going to send fighter escorts with our surveillance planes."


WEDGWOOD: At some point, the Chinese have to also understand that there is some linkage. It's one thing to have separate tracks. But if in fact it were clear that the Chinese military were continuing to engage in aggressive intercepts of American airplanes, and God forbid cause another incident, at that point you can't really say, "Well, trading, we're all economic people, and our trading life is separate from our political life."

The Chinese have to understand that the civilian side should at least monitor the rules of engagement that the Chinese military is using to make sure they're not overly aggressive.

COSSACK: And that, Ruth, is the ultimate negotiator, if you will, is that eventually someone says, "You know what? We've got to get this in a position where we can't hurt the trade." Is that correct?

VAN SUSTEREN: And, wait, before you let Ruth answer, I've got to tell you, Roger, you get the last word and also it is a question because that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Join me again tonight on "The Point." That's 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.

COSSACK: And today on "Talkback Live," unrest in the streets of Cincinnati. How can police keep peace while they're embroiled in the controversy? Tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Join us again tomorrow as we look at the Oklahoma City bombing six years after a national tragedy. We'll see you then on another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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