Like the stylized moves of a Beijing opera performer, China's protests over US Navy surveillance flights in the South China Sea contain a distinct element of theatrics.
China knows, for one, that the United States has no intention of halting the flights in the wake of the April 1 collision of a US EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, according to US and European intelligence experts.
Experts are skeptical of the Chinese complaints for another, more telling, reason: China uses the same eavesdropping tactics to track the US military in Asia, with older technology but growing intrusiveness.
"It's absolutely understood - we are doing things that nations do," says Ronald Montaperto, dean of the Pentagon-funded Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "There is a little bit of Kabuki in this," he says, borrowing an analogy from Japanese theater, "it's a bit of deliberate drama."
China is considered East Asia's No. 1 eavesdropper, mounting electronic intelligence-gathering equipment on everything from aircraft to rocky reefs, and from warships to fishing trawlers. It regularly uses such platforms to pick up radar signals and other communications, targeting a swath of countries from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam to Japan and South Korea, as well as US military operations in the region, experts say.
"Their primary concern is in the region, gathering intelligence against US ships and military facilities and monitoring some US naval exercises," says Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington.
Beijing has widened the reach of its electronic surveillance in recent years. Last year, for example, Tokyo complained of nearly three-dozen intrusions by Chinese naval ships into Japan's coastal economic zone, compared with only one or two in previous years. One goal of the missions was apparently to map the seabed for Chinese submarine operations, as China's coastal force expands to a blue-water navy.
A spike in surveillance activity
In recent years, China has also outfitted nine Y-8X planes with radars, radios, and other surveillance gear, which it operates "around US naval ships and exercises ... and US naval maneuvers," says Paul Beaver of the London-based Jane's Information Group, which publishes Jane's Defence Weekly.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army will try to use any information gained from the damaged EP-3 US Navy surveillance plane to upgrade its own air-reconnaissance capabilities, experts say. China's listening technology, although still "a generation behind the United States'," is "catching up," says Mr. Beaver.
"[They are] getting better all the time," says Mr. Montaperto.
Such technology is more advanced than Beijing's satellite data-gathering capabilities. "Their space intelligence program has been very limited," says Mr. Richelson. "With only about one satellite launch a year, and with each one carrying only so much film, they only get a few weeks of coverage."
At the same time, the eavesdropping activities are far less sophisticated than China's human intelligence gathering, which has been stepped up.
The Cox report, a congressional probe into Chinese spying and nuclear espionage released in 1999, recounts in detail how China's piece-by-piece, mosaic-style intelligence web has widened to include students, businesspeople, bureaucrats, and thousands of Chinese "front" companies in the United States.
Talks not going well
As of the time of writing, reports indicated that talks between US and Chinese officials in Beijing had not gone well and seemed unlikely to continue.
With no apparent progress made on returning the EP-3 surveillance plane to the US, the US ambassador, Joseph Prueher, was to meet with Chinese Foreign Ministry officials today to assess whether another round of talks would be worthwhile.
Experts say the American side will not entertain Beijing's demands that Washington curtail surveillance flights in international airspace around China.
"The real issue is, do we have the right to conduct these operations in international airspace, and the answer, unequivocally, is yes," says David Finkelstein, a retired military intelligence officer now at the Center for Naval Analyses Corp. in Virginia.
Still, he holds out hope that the two sides will at some point agree upon some "rules of the road" to prevent future incidents when Chinese jets intercept US surveillance planes.
"Unless we straighten out some rules of engagement and behavior, the potential for greater disasters is there," says Mr. Finkelstein.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor