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Former U.S. Ambassador to China Stapleton Roy on the U.S./China standoff

Stapleton Roy  

Ambassador Stapleton Roy is a former US Ambassador to China. He is also Former Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and research, U.S. Department of State.

Question from the chat room: What is the importance of the China/USA relationship?

Stapleton Roy: China is the largest country in the world. It has 1.3 billion people. It has the fastest-growing economy in the world. It is of tremendous importance to every country in East Asia and the Pacific. And the U.S. is a huge power, so our relationship to China is intrinsically important. The Chinese like to refer to themselves as the world's largest developing country, and to the U.S. the world's largest developed country. They use this language to illustrate the importance of the relationship.

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Question from chat room: What is the official international treaty statement on international airspace? When the plane emergency landed on Hainan was this no longer neutral airspace or not?

Stapleton Roy: The regular provisions of international law define how far out from a country's borders their airspace and territorial seas extend. In a normal situation, an aircraft that is going to land in a foreign country has to go through an advance clearance process. In this case, the forced landing was a result of an accident in the air, so it's quite understandable that the normal procedures requesting clearance were not used. However, international practice makes allowance for incidents that require aircraft or ships to make unscheduled emergency landings or entry into ports. So, it is not unusual to have to make a forced landing without going through the normal clearance procedures. But the ground rules that apply under those circumstances may not be mutually agreed between all the parties.

Question from chat room: Haven't these intelligence-gathering missions been a part of U.S. military policy for decades?

Stapleton Roy: I think the way to visualize it is this: The United States is enormously powerful and has allies and friends throughout the world. We also have interests in every country in the world. And because of that, the U.S. needs intelligence collection, in order to protect ourselves against threats, whether from hostile countries, or from hostile terrorist organizations. As a result, we have had extensive intelligence gathering operations around the world for decades, many of which were set up because of tensions associated with the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War, we have adjusted these operations, but they still continue because of the magnitude of U.S. interests that remain.

Question from chat room: To what extent does China execute similar intelligence gathering missions?

Stapleton Roy: Every country in the world uses a different pattern of collecting intelligence. Some countries rely more on human agents while others use technology extensively, and some countries use both. So, the pattern of U.S. intelligence gathering is not identical to the patterns that the Chinese traditionally have used. However, the Chinese are technologically sophisticated and have the capability to collect intelligence in ways similar to the practices that the U.S. engages in, one difference being that the Chinese do not have as extensive an overseas presence as does the United States.

Question from chat room: Can you speculate as to why the Chinese would refuse assistance in locating their downed pilot?

Stapleton Roy: That is characteristic Chinese behavior. When an incident of this type occurs, they'd rather rely on their own resources rather than ask for help. It also applies to domestic disasters. When they have floods or earthquakes, they prefer to deal with it themselves, rather than apply for international aid. They pride themselves on dealing with these issues themselves.

Question from chat room: China desperately wants favored nation status, and they want to host the Olympics. Why would they jeopardize those things?

Stapleton Roy: We have to remember that this incident resulted from what appears to be an unfortunate midair accident. The accident was caused by the Chinese intercepting our flight in international airspace, but adjacent to the Chinese coast. It does not seem to have been an incident that was deliberately provoked. It rather was a consequence of a pattern of Chinese surveillance of our aircraft, which according to Admiral Blair, our commander in the Pacific, had, in recent months become, too aggressive in the sense of the Chinese planes were coming too close to our planes, and therefore, increasing the risk of an inadvertent midair collision. Those concerns on our part seem justified, since such a collision seems to have occurred in the present incident. But this is obviously not something that the Chinese chose to have happen in this way at this particular moment.

Question from chat room: If reports that the Chinese are removing equipment from the downed plane are true, what is a likely U.S. response?

Stapleton Roy: The primary U.S. interest in an incident of this course is the safety of our personnel currently held in China. Secondarily, we would obviously like to have the aircraft and its equipment returned to us. The Chinese may not handle those issues exactly the way we would wish them to. But our reaction has to take into account that we do not want to overreact in ways that will compromise the safety of our personnel or our ability to recover the aircraft. So, even if we view the Chinese as taking unjustified, improper actions, we should react in a way that keeps these larger interests in focus.

CNN_Host: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

Stapleton Roy: My final comment would be that this is a serious, but manageable, incident. It's serious, because we have 24 military personnel now in China and a sensitive aircraft there. It's serious on the Chinese side because they seem to have lost a military aircraft and pilot as part of the incident. This complicates the smooth handling of the incident because different interests and groups in each country will have different views on how the incident should be handled.

But this is exactly the sort of incident that experienced diplomats and military attaches are skilled at working out. We have a very competent ambassador in Beijing who was previously our commander in chief in the Pacific, so he is intimately familiar with the circumstances and the background of the incident. And the Chinese will not benefit from letting this situation blow up into a long-standing impediment in their relations with the United States. So, in my view, this is a manageable incident because both countries will benefit from finding a quick solution. But we should not expect the Chinese to behave in every instance as we would like them to behave, any more than they can expect us to halt our surveillance flights simply because this incident has occurred.

CNN_Host: Thank you for joining us.

Stapleton Roy: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed talking to you.

Stapleton Roy joined the chat room via telephone from New York and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, April 03, 2001at 1:15 p.m. EDT.

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Navy Fact File: EP-3E ORION (ARIES II) Aircraft
U.S. Department of Defense
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