A United States Navy surveillance plane made an emergency landing in southern China yesterday after suffering damage during a collision with one of two Chinese J-8 fighters. The Chinese made J-8s are basically a twin engined Mig-21 with Western electronics. The US Pacific Command said its EP-3 plane issued a mayday signal and was able to land at an airbase on Hainan Island after the incident over the South China Sea. The four-engine propeller plane was on a routine mission in international airspace at the time of the collision. Pacific Command spokesman Colonel John Bratton said the minor collision appeared to be "an accident" and the Chinese had not forced the plane down. "The planes actually bumped into each other," another spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Dewey Ford, said. There were no reports of injuries among the 24 crew members - one member of the US Air Force, one marine, and 22 navy personnel - on board the aircraft. Since the mayday call, there has been no communication with the EP-3 crew. Experts say run-ins between Chinese and US aircraft are quite common along the Chinese coast, although it was the first time an aircraft had made an emergency landing.
Chinese television quotes Chinese officials as saying the American plane was in Chinese airspace. According to the reports, the Chinese were following the American plane when it suddenly changed direction, causing the collision. This is highly unlikely, as the J-8s are much faster and more maneuverable than the propeller driven, four engine EP-3. A Chinese plane then crashed into the ocean, and searchers continue to look for the plane's pilot, the reports say. The Chinese reportedly are seeking compensation from the United States. "It's very regular for the American navy to have their planes intruding into Chinese airspace," Yan Xuetong, an international studies expert at Beijing's Tsinghua University said. "The Chinese then send up fighters and chase them out." The incident took place 140 kilometers from Hainan, in water deemed international by everyone except China, which claims everything down the Borneo as part of their territory. The Chinese have been regularly playing games where their fighters get within 20 feet of US intelligence planes.
The US has communicated its concern about the incident to the Chinese Government. It comes at a time when Sino-American relations are under increasing strain. US plans to develop a national missile shield - the so-called "son of star wars" - are a particularly contentious issue. There are also new negotiations with Taiwan for new weapons purchases. US Navy Commander Rex Totty said: "We expect that the government will respect the integrity of the aircraft and the well-being and safety of the crew in accordance with international practices, expedite any necessary repairs to the aircraft and facilitate the immediate return of the aircraft." The Chinese foreign ministry has yet to comment on the incident. The US plane took off from Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, Japan and landed in China, reportedly at Lingshui, Hainan, north of Monkey Island. It has been reported that the Chinese have refused to allow any contact with the EP-3 aircrew and are now on-board the EP-3. If the Chinese could examine the aircraft closely, it would be an intelligence bonanza for them. The EP-3 holds many secrets about how data on China is collected. The EP-3 first entered service in 1969 and has been upgraded several times since. It has a range of 5,500 kilometers. The Chinese are now demanding an apology and reparations for the downed fighter. There is an ongoing competition in the Chinese government over who will take over as the older generation passes from the scene. One faction seeks to demonize the United States and play up Chinese nationalism. It would be embarrassing to admit that sloppy flying by J-8 pilots caused the accident. However, the Chinese government has been caught constructing elaborate, and hardly believable, lies to cover up official incompetence lately.