A U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept it over the South China Sea on Sunday and made an emergency landing in China. The Chinese government said the Chinese aircraft crashed and its pilot is missing.
China blamed the U.S. aircraft for the collision off the southern Chinese island of Hainan. But the commander of U.S. Pacific military forces said the Chinese planes were at fault, sharply criticizing China for more "aggressive" tactics in intercepting U.S. planes.
"It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air," Adm. Dennis Blair told reporters at Camp Smith in Honolulu.
The American EP-3 plane landed at a military airfield at Lingshui on the southern end of Hainan, and China assured the United States that the 24 crewmembers were safe.
The U.S. Pacific Command asked for the return of the crew and aircraft.
U.S. officials have had no contact since the crew since the initial report that it landed with no injuries.
China says the U.S. plane
made an emergency landing
The U.S. plane was on a routine surveillance flight in international airspace when two Chinese fighters intercepted it, said Col. John Bratton, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command. Officials in Honolulu showed a map that put the collision about 80 miles southeast of Hainan, well outside the 12-mile territorial sea and airspace.
A U.S. Navy EP-3 similar
to the one involved in the
"The U.S. side has total responsibility for this event," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that it had made a "serious" protest.
It said two Chinese fighters were sent up to track the plane as it approached Chinese airspace. "The U.S. plane abruptly diverted toward the Chinese planes, and its head and left wing collided with one of the Chinese planes, causing the Chinese plane to crash," it said. It said rescuers were searching for the missing Chinese pilot.
But Blair blamed the Chinese fighters, which he said were similar to F-16s, fly much faster and have more maneuverability than the EP3, which is about the size of a Boeing 737.
"Big airplanes like this fly straight and level otheir path, little airplanes zip around them," he said. "Under international airspace rules, the faster more maneuverable aircraft has obligation to stay out of the way of the slower aircraft."
"It's pretty obvious who bumped into who," Blair said. "I'm going on common sense now because I haven't talked to our crew."
He said the collision was likely an accident - but that it reflected a "pattern of increasingly unsafe behavior" by the Chinese military. He said U.S. officials had protested to Beijing earlier about the behavior but "did not get a satisfactory response."
"Intercepts by Chinese fighters over the past couple months have become more aggressive to the point that we felt they were endangering the safety of the Chinese and American aircraft," he said.
Distrust has risen between Beijing and Washington in recent weeks, exacerbated by China's recent detention of two scholars with links to the United States. China, in turn, has been protesting the prospect of the United States' selling new arms to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade Chinese province.
Commander Rex Totty, another spokesman for the Pacific Command, said U.S. planes routinely run reconnaissance missions in the area and "it is routine for Chinese aircraft to respond by intercepting and shadowing us." He denied U.S. aircraft enter Chinese airspace.
The EP-3 - an unarmed four-engine propeller-driven plane - can pick up radio, radar, telephone, e-mail and fax traffic, said Nick Cook, an aviation expert with Jane's Defense Weekly in London.
The U.S. plane took off from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, the U.S. military said. It is based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state and was flying with a crew of 22 Navy personnel and one each from the Air Force and the Marines.
Bates Gill, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said China was acting like any military power by trying to ward off "activities aimed at its airspace."
The collision with the American plane is a "small victory" from China's perspective, Gill said. "You've sent the message about intruding in airspace. You forced it to land. You've got your hands on it."
Cook noted a similar collision in the 1980s between a Soviet fighter jet and a Norwegian P-3 - similar to the EP-3 - over the Barents Sea, which lies north of Norway and Russia. Both planes landed safely, he said.
The incident comes at an uneasy time in U.S.-Chinese relations. The Bush administration has taken a warier attitude toward Beijing, and the president is reportedly leaning toward selling Taiwan much of the high-tech weapons it seeks - a sale bitterly opposed by China.
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