Spyplane incident

On 1 April 2001, the US EP-3 spyplane, crippled after colliding with a Chinese fighter plane over the South China Sea, off the southern Chinese island of Hainan, flew 104 km to the Lingshui military airfield on Hainan island. Within minutes of landing, while the US crew were frantically trying to scramble their craft’s top secret intelligence, the plane was surrounded by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warning the crew to get off immediately. After the crash, the Chinese fighter, with its pilot, went down. While the Bush administration has attempted to deny all responsibility for the crash, blaming the incident on the

“aggressive Chinese harassment of a legitimate US surveillance mission”,

the Chinese authorities have categorically stated that the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, was engaged in normal flight operations, tracking 1,300 feet behind the US spyplane, when the latter changed course twice then, suddenly swerving down on a collision course, its left wing and left outer propeller chopped the tail of the Chinese fighter. Consequently, say the Chinese authorities, the

“US side has total responsibility.”

The landing of the spyplane on Chinese territory has been an unprecedented disaster for US imperialism on more than one count. The EP-3 has been correctly described as the jewel in the American military’s intelligence-gathering crown. According to a US officer with much experience of spying missions, the EP-3 is “

… an electronic vacuum cleaner, sucking up everything in the electromagnetic spectrum”.

Its purpose is to monitor the electronic equipment – especially radar and communications – being used by the armed forces of the target country, and thus supply the US with the fullest possible picture of the surveyed country’s capabilities and operating practices. The information thus gathered by the crew of the EP-3 is sent to the Washington-based National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications, and helps to form part of a picture built from many sources: satellite surveillance and listening stations in south Korea, Japan and Australia, which intercept radio transmissions and telephone conversations. So sophisticated is the electronic warfare equipment of the EP-3, and so closely guarded are the secrets of his capabilities, that not even Washington’s NATO allies are given access to the plane’s systems.

Intelligence catastrophe for the US

In view of this, from the moment that the US plane landed at the Chinese military airfield, everyone at the Pentagon knew that the US had suffered an intelligence catastrophe, for the

“…Chinese military will enjoy playing with their new toy”


Financial Times,

12 April 2001). Doubtless the crew of EP-3, in the few minutes between the collision and landing on Hainan, would have engaged in an orgy of destruction for the purpose of “

zeroising the kit

“, as US military jargon has it, but the Americans may never discover what the Chinese will be able to retrieve using well-known reverse-engineering techniques. In the opinion of most military experts, even in the event that the crew were able to effect the complete destruction of the plane’s secret codes and equipment while making an emergency landing, they would still have left plenty for the Chinese to examine. But in addition to the secrets thus gained, the Chinese scientists would be in a position “

…to dismantle the pods on the outside of the equipment containing the antennae receiving electronic signals…, given time, the sensors could be ‘reverse engineered’ – in effect, copied”


Financial Times

, 4 April). If, on the other hand, the destruction went badly wrong,

“the Chinese could have got their hands on top-secret cryptology. That’s not far off the British capture of the German Enigma machine during the second world war

” (



Either way, the EP-3 represents a monumental prize for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for it provides the latter with an opportunity to learn precisely what the Americans were eavesdropping on as they flew up and down the Chinese coast; whether they had been able to crack any encrypted Chinese codes; listen to scrambled walkie-talkies on the ground; or gain knowledge of China’s new submarines.

PRC stands firm

Considering the extraordinary intelligence windfall that the EP-3 represented for the PRC, it is hardly to be surprised at that the US administration put such a lot of pressure on China for the immediate return of the crew and the plane. In tones arrogant and haughty, the US authorities threatened China with retribution unless unreasonable demands made by the US were met, hinting that President Bush might cancel his proposed visit to China next October, that the US Congress might vote next June against normal trading relations with China, that the US might block China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or block China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, that it might sell advanced weapons to Taiwan and sponsor a resolution at the UN condemning China’s so-called human rights record. To their credit, the Chinese government and the Chinese people stood firm, refusing to give in to the arrogant demands of US imperialism, demanding instead an apology from the US for the death of the Chinese pilot and the violation of its airspace. Confronted with the PRC’s implacable firmness, the US administration was obliged to tone down its earlier bellicose stridency and adopt a much more humble stance. On 10 April, the

New York Times,

reflecting the thinking of the US ruling class, was constrained to state that

“President Bush’s senior advisers have concluded that the most severe acts of retaliation they could threaten in the spy-plane stand off with China – selling advanced arms to Taiwan, restricting trade, derailing Beijing’s bid for the Olympics – would not speed the release of the 24 American crew members and could harm longer-term interests in Asia.”

The same issue carried an article from China which reported

“Zhang Yin, an elderly news stand owner, recalled a song from the Korean War to explain his feelings about the current crisis with the United States: ‘When friends come, we have good wine to entertain them; but if jackals and wolves come, we’ll use hunting rifles to shoot them’, he sang, adding, ‘I have good feelings for the American people, but China should have shot the plane down’.”

The streets of Beijing,”

continued the article, “

are filled with Mr Zhangs

“, which served to explain why the negotiations for securing the release of the 24 American crew were

“going so slowly”.

US offers apology

In the end, the 11-day spyplane stand-off between the US and the PRC came to a close as the 24 crew members of the EP-3 arrived in Hawaii on 12 April. The release of the crew by the authorities in the PRC was only made possible after the Bush administration had offered its apology (saying it was “

very sorry

“) for the death of Wang Wei (the Chinese pilot who died a hero’s death defending the sovereignty, territorial integrity and dignity of his motherland) and for the unauthorised landing of the crippled US spyplane on Chinese territory. Faced with the anger and grim determination of the Chinese people and their government to extract an apology from the US for the latter’s provocative and intrusive surveillance in violation of Chinese sovereignty and international law alike, the Bush administration had to retreat from its initial bellicosity to a state of contrition.

When is saying sorry not an apology?”,

asked the leading article in the

Financial Times

of 12 April, before going on to answer thus:

When semantics helps to prevent a potential crisis between the world’s only superpower and its biggest rival in Asia. By saying they were ‘very sorry’ for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for entering Chinese airspace without permission, the Americans have broken the impasse over the downed spy-plane”

(‘Common sense prevails’).

Following the US administration’s apology, the PRC decided to release the American crew, prompted by a mixture of self interest and generosity. Self interest because China’s trade relations with the US are enormous. China has become the fourth largest source of US imports, at more than $100 billion per annum. Sales to the US account for more than a third of China’s total exports. Further, the US is the third largest investor in China, with companies such as Ford, General Motors, General Electric, United Technologies and Coca Cola, making huge investments in China. It goes without saying that it is in the interests of the US as well not to jeopardise easily such an important trade relationship – at least not just now. Generosity, because the Chinese would have been perfectly within international law to have put on trial the 24 crew as spies, just as Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spyplane was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, was tried by a Soviet court and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. After serving 2 years, he was freed in exchange for Rudolf Abel, who had been caught by the FBI in 1957.

As to the return of the damaged American spyplane, it too may eventually be returned, although on this score the PRC could take a hint from the US. Back in 1976, when a defecting Soviet pilot flew a MiG fighter to an US military base in Japan, the plane was taken to pieces, thoroughly examined and then sent back to Moscow in crates.

Four decades of provocative and intrusive spying

What has not been resolved with the return of the 24 crew to the US, and will not be resolved with the return of the plane, in boxes or otherwise, is the question of the provocative, threatening and illegal US surveillance flights. The US administration has tried to maintain that its spyplanes fly in

“international territory”

where they have every right to be. The truth, however, is that during their spying missions, the American aircraft fly over China’s

“exclusive economic zone”,

which is defined in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as being neither

“territorial waters”


“the high seas”.

Such an exclusive economic zone has its own special legal status, under which

“freedom of overflight”

is conditional upon compliance with the rights, laws and security of the coastal states concerned. A recent article in the PLA’s daily newspaper, reproduced in the

People’s Daily

of 10 April, pointed out the glaring discrepancy between the US’s demand for the respect by foreign aircraft of its unilaterally-established

“anti-aircraft identification zone”,

on the one hand, and its refusal to respect the rights, internationally recognised, of other states over their exclusive economic zones, on the other. As early as 1950, says the PLA article,

“for its national defence security, the United States set up a so-called anti-aircraft identification zone outside its territorial airspace which extended several hundred nautical miles toward the Atlantic and Pacific oceans”.

The US demanded that other countries, before sending aircraft into the zone,

“must inform the United States of the type and destination for purposes of identification, positioning and control.

As the Chinese saying goes, ‘the magistrates are free to burn down houses, while the common people are forbidden even to light lamps at night’. That is the ‘juridical logic’ of the United States”.

Even respectable bourgeois journalists are from time to time compelled to acknowledge, and comment upon, the duplicity of the imperialist powers – in this case of the US. Writing in the

Financial Times

of 6 April, Mr Philip Stephens has this to say on the question of US spy flights:


But there has long been a question about the intrusive intelligence-gathering operations of the EP-3s. these aircraft fly in international waters. Just. How would Washington respond if China, playing by the same rules, decided to eavesdrop from the air on US military facilities? The words ‘provo-cation’ and ‘unacceptable’ would undoubtedly loom large.”

And yet the PRC has been continuously exposed to such grave provocations. The US has flown eavesdropping missions against the PRC and North Korea (DPRK) for four long decades and used, for the riskiest and the most provocative of such missions, deep into Chinese airspace, Taiwanese pilots trained by the CIA. Last year the US conducted 950 surveillance flights in Chinese coastal areas; so far this year 63 such flights have been reported. Documents declassified by the National Security Archive at only the beginning of this month (April) reveal a long list of perilous stand-offs between the US and the PRC. Unless the US is forced to cease its illegal flights, it is only a question of time before another incident dramatically brings, yet again, the US’s aggressive and bullying activity to world attention.

Designs for world domination

The surveillance activities conducted by the US along Chinese coastal waters must be viewed in the context, and as a continuation, of US imperialism’s role as a global counter-revolutionary gendarme aiming at subjugating the whole world and establishing its hegemony through armed force and nuclear blackmail. The deliberate bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Yugoslav war in 1999, the continued sanctions against, and the daily bombardment of, Iraq, the expulsion of 50 personnel belonging to the Russian embassy in Washington following the uncovering of an alleged Russian mole in the FBI, the decision to go ahead with the Nuclear Missile Defence programme in clear violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see


Sept/Oct 2000), the freezing of the dialogue with the DPRK, the unilateral rejection of its obligations under the Kyoto climate treaty, its green light to the Zionist settler regime in Israel, now headed by the notorious war criminal, Ariel Sharon, to launch unprecedented attacks on Palestinian civilians, and its threat to sell to the Taiwanese puppet regime destroyers fitted with the sophisticated Aegis anti-missile radar system – all point to one conclusion, namely that with the success of the counter-revolution in the former Soviet Union and the former socialist countries of eastern Europe, the US is shifting its military focus from the cold war lines in Europe to the Asia Pacific region, and thus creating the conditions for another cold war, the ultimate purpose of which is to effect counter-revolution in the PRC and the DPRK and open these countries up for unbridled exploitation by international monopoly capital, US monopoly capital in particular, and thus gain world domination.

In this counter-revolutionary strategy, Japan and Taiwan have been assigned a significant role. Hence the increased military co-operation between the US and Japanese imperialism and the easing of restrictions on the expansion of the Japanese military, joint exercises and sharing of facilities with it. Hence the threat to sell the Aegis missile system to Taiwan, an upgrade which could bring the Taiwanese system into the American screen as a ‘theatre’ branch. But, locking the Taiwanese system into the US satellite intelligence system would be tantamount to a resumption of the military alliance between the US and Taiwan, which was explicitly ruled out when Washington and Beijing restored their diplomatic relations – a point which is conceded even by US officials privately. At the time, the US accepted that there was only one China and the regime is Beijing was its sole legitimate representative. It is this agreement that US imperialism is attempting to renege on by trying to establish Taiwan’s de facto indpendence and using the latter as a base for attacking the PRC.

People will be victorious over imperialism

US imperialism has 250,000 troops stationed overseas, of which over 80,000 are in Asia – 36,000 in South Korea, 25,000 in Japan and 25,000 in the Gulf. It has dotted the globe with its military bases and nuclear weapons. With the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, its military might would appear to be unchallengeable. And yet the very breadth and reach of its interests make it exceptionally vulnerable. Through its global oppression, by riding roughshod everywhere, it has make itself the enemy of humanity and has increasingly isolated itself. Even other imperialist countries take comfort from the US’s predicament. “

If the truth be told,”

wrote Mr Philip Stephens in connection with the EP-3 stranded on a Chinese landing strip,

“there have been one or two grim chuckles in Europe at the new president’s discomfort,”

adding that the stranded US aircraft on the Chinese runway symbolised “

power and impotence”


“side by side”


Financial Times,

6 April 2001). The unique vulnerability of the US received a palpable demonstration last year with the attack on

USS Cole

in the port of Aden, to the implications of which Mr Quentin Peel, writing in the

Financial Times

of 16 October 2000, drew attention in the following unequivocal terms: “…

however superior and overwhelming the technology – and the destroyer was one of the US Navy’s most sophisticated warships – it cannot defend itself against fanatical and determined opponents. Truck bombs have penetrated impressively protected US land bases, and now a rubber dinghy has exposed the frailty of a fully-armed warship”

(‘Lessons from America’s backyard’).

Even some bourgeois journalists can no longer fail to notice, and condemn, US imperialism’s hegemonist designs. For instance, Mr George Szamvely, writing in the


of 8 April, has this to say on the subject:


Today the aggressive, imperial power bent on imposing its hegemony in the world is the United States.”

Explaining the reasons for the increasingly close relations between Russia and China, and referring to the spyplane incident, he goes on to say:

Chinese are understandably fed up with round-the-clock US spying flights near their territory. They are angry at disingenuous US claims that essentially military aircraft flying a few miles from their borders are somehow in ‘international air space’, and that spy planes landing without permission on Chinese territory are to be considered US sovereign property”

(‘Russia – land of the free’).

Russia was, he says, the target of around 1,000 spying flights by the US and other NATO countries. Since the collapse of the USSR, far from being left alone, Russia is now at the receiving end of America’s determination to reduce it to

“permanent weakness”

. The US, he adds, has resolved to “

…surround Russia with NATO satellite states. Swiftly breaking its solemnly proffered pledges at the time of Germany’s reunification that NATO would not expand eastwards, the US bullied its junior NATO partners into inviting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to become members.

Today, US policymakers talk of inviting the Baltic States to join. Meanwhile, Washington has sought to lock the Russians out of the oil and gas riches of the Caspian Sea, establishing informal military co-operation agreements with the various dictatorships of Central Asia, hinting at eventual NATO membership to … Georgia and Azerbaijan. Washington even created a military alliance – GUUAM, comprising Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova – that was obviously directed at Russia”




He utterly condemns NATO’s war against Yugoslavia as showing contempt for international law and a violation of “…

innumerable articles of the UN charter, NATO’s charter, and the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the cornerstone of détente, and probably the most important international treaty signed since 1945: ‘The participating states will refrain … from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state … The participating states will refrain from any intervention … in the internal or external affairs falling within the domestic jurisdiction of another participating state’”




Since entering Kosovo, the conduct of the US-led forces, says Mr Szamvely, has been characterised by a gross violation of Security Council Resolution 1244, the sole legal basis for NATO’s occupation. Instead of disarming the KLA, NATO has helped launch KLA-led insurgency in Macedonia and southern Serbia.

Now the US administration is threatening to build the NMD in clear violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, egging on the ethnic separatist movements within the Russian Federation – all in the pursuit of an aggressive policy.

Condemning Anglo-American daily bombing of Iraq as illegal, and sanctions against Iraq as inhuman, he correctly remarks that the hysteria whipped up by the US against Saddam Hussein and the Iranian ayatollahs is the sole justification for the US presence in the Gulf. On the same grounds, the US opposes reconciliation between the two halves of Korea for

“…it would inevitably bring into question the continuing US military presence in Korea and Japan”.

This almost Marxist analysis comes from the pen of an anti-communist journalist, with impeccably respectable bourgeois credentials. For precisely that reason it has added weight as an indicator of the widespread opposition all over the world to US finance capital’s hegemonist imperial designs for world domination.

People will not put up with the lot assigned to them by US imperialism, for “

those who refuse to be enslaved will never be cowed by the atom bombs and hydrogen bombs in the hands of the US imperialists. The raging tide of the people of the world against US aggressors is irresistible. Their struggle against US imperialism and its lackeys will assuredly win still greater victories”

(Mao Tse-tung, January 1964,

People of the world, unite and defeat US aggressors and all their lackeys


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