US and China talk planes, fly zones, fair play

Meeting in Beijing today to discuss whose laws govern the right to fly where.

For the first time since the US aircrew detained in China returned to American shores, officials from the two countries will meet here today to discuss what happened and how to proceed.

Three items are on China's agenda: the cause of the crash, the fate of US EP-3E plane now at a Hainan airbase, and - perhaps the issue China feels most strongly about - addressing the "double standard" for US military flights near its coast.

Under US laws governing its own Air Defense Identification Zone, military planes from other nations entering a 200-mile radius of US shores must first identify themselves. Otherwise, they are intercepted and "escorted."

China is now claiming a similar standard, and questioning whether US military planes can fly, as they have been doing for decades, in what China claims as its 200-mile "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) off China's coast. "The US should stop these flights.... They constitute a threat to China's security," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue yesterday.

Whether the two sides will actually conduct a serious open-ended questioning of what actually happened on April 1, with the idea of establishing a new basis for discussions, is in question. China's rhetoric regarding a "bullying" America has increased in recent days, turning the pilot Wang Wei, whose jet collided with the EP-3E, into a something of an "anti-American" hero.

Yet China has signaled to US officials that it wants a "straightforward" discussion, which might be something other than a shouting match about blame.

More than dealing with just this incident, at issue is China's desire to more fully control all aspects of security in its region - with the US Pacific Fleet, which oversees security from Korea to Australia, as the potentially "hostile" power. (The Liberation Army Daily newspaper yesterday described the US, in fact, as "a powerful enemy.") The US-implied defense of Taiwan, as mandated by US law, is a major thorn in China's paw.

Many international legal experts say that under "customary law," China does not have a strong case on its 200-mile airspace point. China would have had to protest vigorously and publicly on many occasions prior to this incident to suddenly make such a claim. Most of the laws relating to these EEZs relate to whether or not foreign vessels are causing harm to the economic interests of the sea and the marine life in the zone. China's positions have extended this law to airspace.

The already controversial incident has raised a potential double standard - since according to US laws "any foreign planes" coming within 200 miles of the US must "obey the procedures the US has prescribed," as explained in a long published tract by Chinese legal expert Li Qin.

The US laws are in place to stop potential supersonic flights of craft that could carry lethal weapons. US air defense interceptor jets scramble to check out various planes that come close to its zone, or that dance in and out of it.

Such flights are quite unlike a slow-moving turboprop aircraft like the EP-3E, whose presence is flagged far ahead of time by radar. The April 1 mission by the EP-3E, it is argued by the US, was a routine one flown for years.

China says that it may challenge US surveillance flights under the United Nations 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, Article 58: "States shall have due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal State and comply with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal State...." China says military as opposed to civilian aircraft constitute a hostile potential flight. The US should take due regard, Chinese officials say.

Beijing's basic position: If it applies to the US, it ought to apply to China.

US officials say the issue is more complex. The US may escort but does not exclude any number of foreign aircraft flying close to the US coast in and out of Cuba, for example. They argue that laws emerge out of particular circumstance, and that the singular US geographic case is unlike the South China Sea, where the interests and relevant laws must apply and compete between nations as diverse as China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia - and indirectly for Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

Specialists argue further that Article 58 allows the overflight of aircraft in an EEZ, that coastal rights in the 200-mile zone are economic, and not a right to immunity from collecting information, which they say is different from flights of aggressive weapons bearing aircraft. The famed "trawlers" of the Soviet Union used to regularly collect information just outside the US 12-mile territorial zone.

The US position itself is unbending - Washington insists it is flying in international airspace. President Bush is reportedly deciding whether future surveillance missions over the South China Sea, which could begin tomorrow, will be escorted by fighter jets. The jets would take off from a carrier presumably redeployed near the South China Sea. Such a decision would surely be seen as confrontational - though at this writing, some reports that the USS Kitty Hawk has already been sent have been denied.

Too, the upcoming decision on advanced weaponry sales to Taiwan, something Beijing is bitterly opposed to, may play into the talks.

Of course, Beijing does not have entirely clean hands on the question of spying, either. One example is Beijing's long practice of sending "geological survey ships" into Japan's exclusive economic zone - ships that conduct surveillance on Japan.

The two sides were supposed to have worked out the problem in a signed agreement last June. However, as late as last October, ships were still being sighted, though Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said the instances were "isolated and accidental."

A Japanese Foreign Ministry report quoted by a New York news service (Lateline) last September said that some 17 Chinese research vessels were spotted illegally in Japanese EEZ waters in 2000.

When asked in a press briefing yesterday about such instances, spokeswoman Ms. Zhang said the question was an attempt to deflect attention from US violations.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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