It's a tense standoff that's reminiscent of a bygone cold-war era, when US spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in 1960.
Chinese officials yesterday appeared to be playing a waiting game. At press time, US officials had not yet been allowed to make contact with the crew of a Navy spy plane, loaded with eavesdropping technology, that made an emergency landing on the island of Hainan on Sunday.
In Washington, President Bush said "I'm troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response," and three US destroyers were ordered to stay in the sea near Hainan.
The Chinese have no reason to rush their response, say sources in Beijing, and a careful and calibrated silence over what they see as a downed spy plane off their shores sends a multilayered message of "great power" toughness to the US - at a time when relations are not at their best.
"If the Chinese do not take action to resolve this quickly and cleanly, within the next day or so, it could easily escalate into an even larger diplomatic incident which will negatively impact the relationship in significant ways," says Bates Gill, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The ball is in their court to resolve this."
But China may not move quickly. "Clearly, this is an opportunity for the Chinese to force the US to take them more seriously. They have long resented American reconnaissance flights in this area, which are essentially designed to gain military intelligence" about China, says Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at the John F. Kennedy School Government at Harvard University.
Both US and Chinese officials have stated repeatedly that surveillance missions and interplay between military aircraft above the South China Sea have been routine. Partly, the cause of the friction between the US and China is a dispute over what is and is not Chinese airspace in the South China Sea. But this incident highlights a more intense level of intercepts between aircraft on the two sides.
"The intercepts by the Chinese fighters over the past couple of months have become more aggressive to the point that we felt that they were endangering the safety of Chinese and American aircraft," US Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Dennis Blair told reporters in Hawaii.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy issued a statement yesterday saying that the intercepting jets were from a Chinese Navy air unit that took off from Lingshui airfield - the same base where the American EP-3 landed. In the past year, according to the report, Chinese jets have 13 times encountered US aircraft in a manner designed to "get close to and confront" US planes, with one Chinese commander "inserting his plane into the formation of the US craft and coming within eight meters of a plane." The center's director, Frank Liu, says the information was obtained by calling "people" in and around Hainan Island and the Lingshui airbase.
Such accounts are impossible to verify, though sources say they "fit the pattern" of recent months.
But the immediate concern of US officials is contacting the crew, and protecting the sensitive equipment on the EP-3. It is not yet known whether the equipment on the plane was disabled or destroyed by the crew, who evidently shut down the electrical systems on the aircraft when it landed.
Some sources say that military personnel who fly sensitive reconnaissance missions are trained to quickly immobilize the computer systems and radar telemetry on the aircraft.
In the case of the forced landing of the EP-3, which suffered damage to its left wing and the outside (No. 1) engine of four turboprops, the flying crew would have been in an emergency crisis. But many of the 20 or so other personnel would have had 70 to 80 miles of flying time, plus time on the ground, to render the equipment useless.
"I think it's very unlikely that [the crew] would have been able to disable or destroy critical intelligence assets so completely that the Chinese could get nothing from it," says Dr. Walt. "If the Chinese have an opportunity to explore the plane at leisure, I'm sure they will find something."
The three US diplomats in Hainan are close enough to the Lingshui airbase so that "if they were given permission" they could contact the crew immediately. "Under the generally accepted norms of international law, our aircrew is immune to PRC jurisdiction,"Ambassador Prueher told reporters here yesterday.
"It is inexplicable and unacceptable and of grave concern to the most senior leaders in the US government that the aircrew has been held incommunicado for over 32 hours, and the Chinese so far have given us no explanation for holding the crew," Prueher said.
This incident comes at a delicate time. "There are so many things going on in the US-China relationship right now - from newly detained scholars, to human rights, to Taiwan arms sales," says Thomas Gold, China expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "On the one hand, the Chinese foreign ministry is trying to make nice with the Bush administration, which still does not have a working East Asia team. At the same time, the White House says publicly it wants to lean toward Japan, and be a competitor with China. We are seeing in this incident that part of the Chinese leadership that is taking this confrontational language, and approach seriously. They don't trust the US - on Taiwan, on anything."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor