Risks rise as plane standoff drags

Pressure builds for Beijing and Washington to act tough as politics, pride collide.

On the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea, sits a monument to the dangers of geostrategic snooping: the USS Pueblo.

A spy ship seized by the North Koreans in 1968, the Pueblo was the subject of months of tense multinational diplomacy. Its crew was finally released, but the ship itself stayed behind. Today it is a museum, complete with grainy video displays inveighing against US "imperialism" and "enemy aggression."

The current spy-plane standoff with China does not yet approach the seriousness of the Pueblo incident. Both Beijing and Washington profess hope that their long-term relations will not be affected by this short-term problem.

But the history of the Pueblo reminds that national pride, disputed territory, and electronic intelligence-gathering can be an explosive mix. What begins as a routine military spy mission can become a means for two nations to gather a different sort of intelligence - how the other behaves under intense international and domestic pressure.

"There is definitely an element of testing going on, on both sides," says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence and government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

At time of writing the eventual resolution of the downed spy-plane incident remained unclear.

There were, however, at least some positive signs. Behind the scenes, for the first time, diplomatic exchanges appeared to be increasing, though the substance and tone of the meetings remained a mystery.

Publicly, Beijing says the US expression of "regret" articulated mid-week by US Secretary of State Colin Powell is a sign of "progress."

But Chinese officials reiterate that Beijing still requires an apology, a general "explanation" to the Chinese people by US leaders, and better "cooperation" before a release of 24 crew members of the EP-3 surveillance plane is possible.

Moreover, Chinese officials are not ruling out the possibility that the crew, or part of the crew, is being interrogated. Such questioning would be "natural," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi during a strained press meeting yesterday. Beijing is avoiding characterizing the status of the crew, which is being held on Hainan Island in South China. Spokesmen would not characterize them as prisoners, spies, captives, detainees, or anything else.

However, US officials in China, obviously wishing both for a return of the crew and the avoidance of a serious schism with Beijing, are expressing a brighter tone. "Things are looking good," said Ambassador Joseph Prueher to waiting reporters outside the US Embassy yesterday.

Still at issue is the nature of the South China Sea airspace where the collision between the lumbering US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet occurred.

China claims a normal 12-mile zone for its airspace off its coast. But due to the islands that dot the sea south of Hainan, China also claims an "economic exclusion zone" for the waters extending some 200 miles off its coast.

In the current crisis, China is asking that the airspace above this exclusion zone, which has been viewed by most of the international community as international airspace, now be free for civil aviation, but not for military or "hostile" aviation.

In Washington, one problem is the slow pace of apparent progress. If members of Congress and the US public come to believe that the airmen are hostages, the pressure for the administration to take a tough line will exponentially increase.

China has its own internal constituencies to deal with. Chinese military leaders, for one, may be disagreeing on what course to take. If there are such disagreements, they will take time to resolve.

Moreover, the Chinese, with domestic passions running high, may find it difficult to quickly do an about-face and hand over the fliers. Experts in Beijing say any release will likely follow a careful sequence of events.

But in Washington some lawmakers are already beginning to talk about openly opposing China's dearly held wish of hosting the 2008 Olympics. On Wednesday, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, a long-time critic of the Beijing government, introduced legislation to overturn last year's congressional approval of permanent normal trading relations for China.

"A favored trading partner would follow proper protocol and not continue to hold our servicemen and women ... after being asked for their return," he said.

Past incidents of standoffs involving US intelligence equipment are not directly analogous to the current situation.

In 1960, for instance, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 reconnaissance plane were shot down deep over Soviet territory. Powers tried to convince authorities that he had simply flown off course, but maps, rubles, and a poison suicide pin hidden in a coin gave him away. The incident helped deepen the cold war and did not end until Powers was swapped two years later for Soviet spy Rudolph Abel.

In 1969, North Korea shot down a US Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane, killing all 31 crew members. Pyongyang claimed the aircraft had been over its territory. Washington said it had not flown closer than 60 miles offshore.

Then there was the Pueblo. On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean patrol boats in the Sea of Japan stormed the ship on the high seas, killing one US sailor. Eighty-two crew members were held for nearly a year. Some were tortured.

At the time, North Korea was a US enemy in a way that China is not. "But it illustrates what can happen in these incidents" as they proceed, notes Mr. Aftergood.

The Pueblo brought the US close to war, but, already committed in Indochina, the US won the crew's freedom with a hollow apology, instead. Even before he signed the apology, US negotiator, Maj. Gen. Gilbert Woodward, repudiated it. His signature, he said, was "to free the crew and only to free the crew."

During the cold war Russian bombers often lumbered up from Siberia toward US airspace off Alaska. Their intent was to provoke a response to learn more about US defensive capabilities and tactics.

The flights were so common they became stylized. At one point the US and Soviet pilots took to waving Pepsi cans at each other, with the soft drink's vivid blue serving as a kind of "hello."

But the Soviets were skilled pilots - as, apparently, the Chinese are not. "Their training flying hours are among the world's lowest, lower even than many third-world countries," says Philip Liu, an expert on Asian militaries at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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