It's not clear yet who bumped whom in midair.
But China is claiming that a US reconnaissance plane is "wholly responsible" for a downed Chinese fighter in an incident above the South China Sea yesterday morning. The damaged US aircraft was forced to land on a Chinese island.
The collision suddenly gives the new Bush administration a difficult diplomatic and military challenge, at a time when rhetoric between Beijing and Washington is already heating up.
"This is a real test for US-China military-to-military relations," says David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University. "We have been trying under Clinton to build trust. Pretty much all the channels are there to defuse the crisis."
A hotline was set up in 1998 between Chinese president Jiang Zemin and Clinton, and in the past two years direct links have been established between the US Pacific Command and the Chinese ministry of defense, as a result of the engagement policy and the 1996 Taiwan Strait incident.
At press time, Chinese officials said their fighter jet had crashed and the pilot was missing. The US flight crew of 24 reportedly landed their aircraft near the Lingshui Airbase on Hainan, an island off the southern coast of China.
A spokesman for the US Pacific Command says the incident took place in international airspace, adding that "we don't know what caused the incident. We are saying that a PRC aircraft made contact with an American aircraft. The No. 1 engine and underside of the US aircraft are damaged."
According to Chinese official reports, at 9:07 a.m. (Beijing time) two Chinese fighters were following a US EP-3 intelligence gathering plane when the "US plane all of a sudden turned, and clipped the left wing of one jet, forcing it to crash," said Chinese spokesman Zhu Bangzao, who also stated that the US plane entered Chinese airspace "without permission" in order to make an emergency landing.
US officials have requested a recovery of the EP-3 and pilots, loaded with state-of-the art telemetry; but it unclear as of this writing how the Chinese plan to handle this question.
"[There is] a great risk in [the Chinese] getting close to the aircraft," says Mr. Shambaugh. "If they try to remove the crew from the aircraft at gunpoint, the crew will be under instructions to stay in the aircraft, they are armed and probably have instructions to defend the aircraft. If [the Chinese] forced the crew off and went on to examine it, that could quickly become an international incident."
"The question is whether the Chinese will cooperate and allow US officials to deal with the pilots and plane - or whether this will turn into some kind of tougher game," says one Western source in Beijing.
In recent years, China has made significant new claims over the South China Sea. The US aircraft landed on China's Hainan Island, where the Chinese have a major naval base. The EP-3, a radar plane, "soaks up" most of the transmissions in the area through which it passes.
Asked if there a different definition of the airspace between the US and China, a US Pacific Command spokesperson replied, "there kind of seems to be, doesn't there?"
Some experts here wonder whether hawks in the Chinese military are responding in kind to the tougher US hawks they perceive as newly positioned in the Bush administration.
Whatever the reason, the incident comes at an especially sensitive time in US-China relations, with a significant wing of the China hawks (often called "blue team" members) taking high-ranking positions in the Bush administration. The tougher position on a possible "threat from China" taken by the hawks is in contrast with the more conciliatory view on China championed by Clinton administration officials, sometimes called "red team" members - who characterized relations between the US and China as a "strategic partnership."
In recent weeks, US-China rhetoric has sharpened over a rash of contentious issues between the two sides. US officials suggested that Chinese telcom firms were helping Saddam Hussein rebuild his radar defenses. The Chinese have issued stern warnings about high-tech weapons sales to Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory - particularly the sale of the Aegis-equipped destroyer, which could eventually become part of a theater missile defense system. China sent its top foreign policy diplomat, Qian Qichen, to Washington for talks with Bush last month that included efforts to block the Aegis system.
Adding to the tension between the two sides is a US effort at the UN in Geneva to officially condemn China's human rights record. In the past week, also, three cases of detained Chinese scholars holding permanent US residency permits have come to light - with China claiming it is holding at least one of the scholars on spy charges.
One Washington-based China watcher urged caution in ascribing calculated or scheming motives to this aircraft incident: "I would not tend to think this has anything to do with the arms sales or the Qian visit... It's not as though we don't send out surveillance planes all the time, and they don't come check us out." But this expert adds, "We [may] want to attribute [this] to some grander scheme, but ... it could be a hot-headed pilot, an inexperienced pilot."
Even before Chinese spokesman Zhu reported the Chinese version of events, the Chinese Internet chat rooms were lit up with angry comments condemning the US. Not since the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 has such a release of angry anti-US statements been seen so quickly.
"I only care about our own pilots, I don't care about the Americans," said one Chinese writer at the Sina.Com site. Another stated, "We should have done this much earlier. If we aren't serious, they will think our sky is their own backyard." Another added: "We should keep the 24 Americans as hostages."
In recent years, China has made icreasing claims on South China Sea shipping lanes and strategic sea territory. Some specialists say the controversy even over the Sunday incident may boil down to different views over this territory.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor