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Analysts Recall Plane Collision In 2001 Amid Worsening China-U.S. Relations

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly two decades ago, a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided in the sky over the South China Sea. The Chinese fighter crashed, killing the pilot. The crippled U.S. plane landed in China. And for the next 11 days, the two sides were locked in a standoff before China released the U.S. air crew. The incident did not escalate into a bigger conflict, but it could have. And according to some observers, given the state of U.S.-China relations, the risk of a similar mishap or worse has increased. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: It was a Sunday morning, April Fool's Day, when Neal Sealock got the call that there'd been an incident. Sealock, now retired, was a one-star general in the defense attache at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. He rushed to call the Chinese defense ministry to verify that the U.S. crew was safe. But his contacts couldn't be reached.

NEAL SEALOCK: I was calling about every 15 minutes.

RUWITCH: It was 12 hours before Chinese officials met.

SEALOCK: It was a bureaucratic nightmare, as far as I was concerned.

RUWITCH: That nightmare, analysts say, could be a lot scarier today. Much has changed in the intervening 20 years. China's economy has grown tenfold. Its military has undergone a sweeping modernization, and U.S.-China relations have never been worse, with strong bipartisan support for a harder line against China. Meanwhile, both countries are flexing their muscles with more frequent military maneuvers in the western Pacific. Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, says the possibility of an unintended conflict has grown.

SHI YINHONG: A very prominent factor and the most dangerous.

RUWITCH: The most dangerous factor, Shi says, is the drastic and militant approach taken by the Trump administration towards China. U.S. officials say China's increasingly aggressive behavior is what's raised the risks. Michael Swaine is a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says China's growing strength is changing the dynamic in the Pacific and creating an unstable balance of power.

MICHAEL SWAINE: The danger is that the Chinese will miscalculate that their leverage - military, political, economic - is greater than they think and that they will use that leverage in ways that the U.S. finds unacceptable. And by its token, the United States in looking at this will itself miscalculate.

RUWITCH: Before the EP-3 incident, U.S. officials say they tried on multiple occasions to lower the chances of miscalculation in the air. Months before the collision, the U.S. embassy showed footage of what they described as reckless flying by Chinese fighter pilots to officials there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's close.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's very, very close.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yes. He's...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's almost - probably 20 feet from our wing tip. So he's inside of our wing tip.

RUWITCH: But China persisted, hoping to pressure the U.S. into ending its surveillance flights. Dean Cheng with The Heritage Foundation says the Chinese government tends to overestimate its ability to escalate and de-escalate crises. Luck, in fact, may have helped keep the EP-3 incident from spiraling into something worse.

DEAN CHENG: Imagine if both planes went down somewhere unseen. Imagine if one or the other side says in the last radio message we've been hit. We're going down. That's the scary part is, whoa, was it a collision or did somebody shoot somebody down?

RUWITCH: At the time, the Bush administration was well-positioned to deal with such a crisis, according to Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: First of all, if they had a EP-3 incident now, the administration is not staffed up to handle it. We knew everyone on the Chinese side because we'd worked in previous administrations with it.

RUWITCH: But even with the right team, experts say mistrust and growing nationalism mean that in the next crisis. Neither side is likely or would be able to give the other the benefit of the doubt. Sealock, the former defense attache, says that's why lines of communication are crucial. Unfortunately, he says, attempts at building them since the collision have been mostly unsuccessful.

SEALOCK: Without having the discussions and hammering out how it's going to be handled, we're kind of leaving it up to their devices. And that's just not a good thing in my opinion.

RUWITCH: And Sealock will be the first to tell you that it's hard to manage a crisis if the other side won't take your call.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.