China: April 23, 2001


By all accounts, China did not get much out of the EP-3 that landed on Hainan Island, but it is determined to make the most of it. Russian experts will probably be asked for help, and China will spend as much time watching what the Russians do as it does studying what the Russians learn. There is a considerable market for simple signal intelligence systems. The easy parts (most in the way the antenna are set up) were relatively intact on the aircraft. Linked to off-the-shelf computers, this would give a nation a fair amount of signal interception technology, although nothing compared to the capabilities of the systems in US use. The software on the EP-3 can be destroyed with the flip of a single switch, which has happened by accident more than once and is known to be totally effective. Classified documents are printed on water-soluble paper and are flushed down the toilet in an emergency, or in desperation could simply be shoved into the on-board water cooler. The Chinese, however, will take delight in offering for sale simple SIGINT systems with sales brochures noting that it was copied from the systems on the EP-3. The Chinese have certainly obtained things from the aircraft that they did not have and would have needed years to create for themselves, and are known to have been furiously trying to acquire signal interception technology anywhere they can. What the Chinese most wanted to learn from the aircraft is the extent of the aircraft's ability to monitor tests of new missiles the Chinese are deploying. Simply put, they want to know how much we know and when we knew it about their new weapons. Until just a few years ago, EP-3s cruising up and down the coast of China were under orders to ditch (even at the risk of the crew) rather than landing in China. Such a landing was absolutely prohibited. The Clinton Administration changed this policy a few years ago after a finding that China would probably respect the various international maritime treaties it had signed and return an aircraft promptly and intact if it made an emergency landing. This turned out not to be the case, and no one in the Pentagon believes the US will ever get the aircraft back. Conspiracy buffs would probably consider this proof that President Clinton was trying to deliver the technology to China, but it was a couple of years between this change of policy and when serious harassment began, and as noted, the Chinese didn't get all that much out of the deal. The campaign of dangerously close "buzzing" of US recon aircraft began about a year ago. The Clinton Administration was briefed, several times, on the situation but did not brief Congress or the media.--Stephen V Cole


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