The Hainan Island incident of 2001

The April 1st War

by Gwydion M. Williams

This was written in 2001, about the Hainan Island incident ( in which a US spy aircraft flying just outside China‘s borders collided with a Chinese aircraft that was there to challenge it, killing the pilot. It was first published in Labour & Trade Union Review.

The collision between two aircraft in airspace that is substantially Chinese led to a diplomatic war. A war that is still going on, but which has already led to some Chinese victories.

Victory is hardly ever the winning of all you asked for. It’s convenient to use such an extreme definition when you dislike the winner, but no one does it otherwise. The USA began by demanding immediate return of plane and crew, while China demanded an apology. The crew – not the plane – were released in return for a ‘very sorry’ from the USA.

Bush in his remarks of the 2nd and 3rd April ignored the possibility that the US pilot might be to blame. And while he did offer US help in trying to find the missing pilot, he did not make any expression of regret. Not until much later, after it became clear he had blundered and been embarrassed by a letter from the Chinese pilot’s widow. Back then he said “Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident. We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing. But now it is time for our servicemen and women to return home. And it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane”. (Statement posted at, the website of the US Pacific Command.)

President Jiang’s response of the 4th April was to demand an apology. The crew was released on the 11th after this demand had been partly met by the US saying “Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss”. China said however that the dispute was not settled and that the crew were being released ‘for humanitarian reasons’.

In the first days of the dispute, there were odd reports of a Western diplomat, possibly the US ambassador to China, referring to the Chinese “all over the plane like mice” (Tug of War, Financial Times April 4th0. The issue was very noticeably not followed up in the media, and now we learn that the US ambassador to China is being replaced after 17 months for unspecified reasons.

Some Western media are claiming the ‘very sorry’ has been misrepresented to the Chinese people as an ‘apology’. They discuss the complexities of English-Chinese translation, but fail to mention the following official posting:

“After the incident, the Chinese side has been insisting that the US side should make an apology. But the US side has so far only said that it is very sorry for the incident. Yet, the Chinese side has decided to allow the US crew members to leave China… In the letter, the US Government has said “very sorry” to the Chinese people and the family of pilot Wang Wei for the missing pilot and aircraft. The US side has also said “very sorry” to the Chinese side for its plane entering China’s airspace and landing at a Chinese airfield without acquiring a verbal clearance. Under these circumstances and out of humanitarian considerations, the Chinese Government has decided to allow the US crew members to leave China after completing the necessary procedures. However, it must be pointed out that this case has not concluded yet.” (Statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, found at for 11th April 2001.)

The logic of the Western media position is that Chinese with all their Internet Cafes are not allowed or expected to read the English version of their own Foreign Ministry’s website. You are serious?

The President US Administration is very much ‘Bush Mark Two’, an attempt to continue Reaganism on the assumption it is the envy of the world. Reading western media and most ‘expert’ books, you would never suspect that the Chinese continue to regard Mao’s rule as a period of great advance and recovery of national dignity. I seem to be almost along among Westerners in noticing from the Tiananmen Papers that Deng considered Maoist protectionism and isolationism as a perfectly decent option to which he could retreat if necessary.

Bush also initially showed a lack of respect for Chinese lives. Only on the 11th and after having been widely criticised for his earlier views did Bush get round to saying things like “I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot. Our prayers are with his wife and his child.” Secretary of State Colin Powell had said “Unfortunately, it apparently was fatal for the pilot of the Chinese plane and I regret that” back on the 3rd, but it was and is moot just how much his word counts. He’s much the best man there, but does Bush sees it? If Bush chooses to ignore Colin Powell, then his role would become ornamental.

The crisis and the apparent misjudgements of some Bush advisors may have secured Colin Powell in actual possession of his official authority, time will tell. The notable silence of US allies still seething from the junking of Kyoto may also have a large behind-the-scenes effect.

What about the legal status of the relevant airspace? The Chinese view is:

“In accordance with the current of international law, although foreign aircraft enjoy the freedom to fly over the exclusive economic zone of another country, such freedom is by no means unrestricted or they must observe the relevant rules of international law while enjoying the freedom of overflight…U.S. has designated Air Defense Identification Zone… much wider than that of the exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles. The U.S. demands that any foreign planes in the Air Defense Identification Zone fly according to the U.S. stipulated course, and obey the procedures the U.S. has prescribed, and if any foreign plane violates these rules, the U.S. will send its planes to intercept it” (U.S. Seriously Violates International Law,, 04/15/01)

Some initial reports in our media mentioned the Exclusive Economic Zone but also the disputes between Asian countries over parts of the South China Sea. These disputes relate to the Paracel and Spratly islands further south, where turtles and seabirds are the only permanent inhabitants. Hainan Island is unambiguously part of China, so the different legal status of airspace above Exclusive Economic Zones suddenly became an ‘unfact’ in our media, dominated by commercial interests.

That the whole dispute took place not far from the Gulf of Tonkin was also overlooked or left unsaid. A supposed North Vietnamese attack on US warcraft back in 1964 was use to justify the US escalation. “Both houses of Congress passed the resolution on August 7, the House of Representatives by 414 votes to nil, and the Senate by a vote of 88 to 2. The resolution served as the principal constitutional authorization for the subsequent vast escalation of the United States’ military involvement in the Vietnam War… the resolution was repealed in 1970. (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The context of this repeal was not just the failure of the war, but also the widespread belief by then that the US government had been systematically lying and deceiving.

Then there was Bush’s claim that the US plane remained inviolable sovereign territory even after touching down at Hainan, a very moot point:

“The comment appeared geared towards an intense debate. Leading international lawyers warned of many shades of grey relating to the rights and responsibilities of states receiving planes in distress. In theory, the plane is American territory. Like ships, military planes and commercial airliners are registered and “flagged” to a particular nation… If the plane had been a commercial aircraft, China’s obligations would be more cut and dried, legal experts said. The internationally accepted Chicago Convention for Civil Aircraft ensures sweeping obligations for nations receiving planes in distress. But the convention does not apply to military aircraft, a fact noted by US military documents… The official Washington position has sought to skate over the murkiest areas of the law with firm statements – repeated by President George W. Bush himself – that China’s obligations are clear under “international law and practice”. Such statements also skirt the fact that the US has, on occasion, dodged similar appeals from foreign states, most notably during the Cold War.” (South China Morning Post website)

The USA wants law to be whatever the USA needs it to be at any given moment. Remember the 1998 cable car massacre in Italy? Italy is the USA’s ally rather than its foe, and thus bound by rules the US made up when Europe needed them:

“An Italian parliamentary commission has branded as “criminals” the crew of a US jet which caused a cable car accident in 1998, killing 20 people. The commission said it was clear that the crew and the US chain of command were responsible for the disaster on Mount Cermis. Only one skier survived when the US Marines jet sliced through cables and sent the cable car plunging to their ground. A US military jury found the jet’s pilot not guilty of manslaughter, though he and the jet’s navigator were dismissed from the marines for destroying a videotape of the flight… Previous Italian and American investigators found the jet was flying too low and too fast when it hit the cable.” (BBC Online, 9th Feb 2001).

There is also the sinking of a Japanese fishing boat by an American nuclear on 9th February. Nine Japanese students and teachers on board the boat died in the collision, which happened when a civilian passenger was at the controls of the submarine. It was agreed that the submarine was misbehaving and that the deaths resulted from this misbehaviour. Now that is manslaughter, normally defined as ‘to kill a person without malice aforethought’. But once again, the US military will not allow its own military to pay the normal price for behaviour that would be clearly criminal in a non-military context.

Concerning the April 1st incident, it might have been wholly the Chinese pilot’s fault, for all I know. But the USA was held accountable and forced to deal on equal terms, and that matters.

China was acting within international norms by challenging spy planes making surveillance missions over its Exclusive Economic Zone. That’s one half of the context, the other is whether or not the collision happened after the US plane made a sharp left turn, as the Chinese claimed from the beginning.

The US pilot’s version is that “contrary to some releases, this aircraft was straight and steady, holding altitude, heading away from Hainan Island on auto-pilot when the accident occurred. I also want to state that the sharp left turn they’re talking about is when the aircraft went out of control after the number one prop was impacted and the nose… He would come up, close, co-altitude, within about three to five feet, was making gestures, pulled back a little bit, came back up again and made some more gestures, and then the third time his closure rate was too far. Instead of under-running, he attempted to kind of turn and pitch up, and that was when his vertical stabilizer – where it meets the fuselage of the aircraft – impacted my number one propeller, basically pretty much tearing his aircraft apart.”. (Pilot’s press conference, 14th April 2001).

The was also the Wang Wei memorial Site (, intended just for respect for the dead Chinese pilot, but where a lot of comments had been posted, including some vulgar insults that come either from very crude stupid Americans or very smart and subtle Communist agents. But I did also find the following interesting comment:

“As a fellow military pilot, I am sad for the loss of Wang Wei. But like most of the PLA Naval Aviators, he was incompetent and unprofessional. The PLAN doesn’t even realize how poorly trained their pilots are.

“I have flown many intercepts, and it is the duty of the interceptor pilot to avoid his target. A competent pilot never puts his fighter in a position where it can collide should the target make an unexpected move.” (Jerry Subject: Sorry for Unskilled Wang)

George Washington’s troops were also regarded as hopelessly unskilful by the army of George III, and in fact Washington had previously been rejected when he tried to become an officer in the British Army in the days when most British Americans were entirely satisfied with British rule. But just as the Americans in their time of weakness found ways to assert regional power against a global superpower, so too does China today.

China lacks the technology to built the most modern aircraft, and lacks the wealth to give them the vast amount of training their US equivalents enjoy. But as in the Vietnam War, such things need not be decisive. The Serbs shot down America’s ‘invisible’ Blackbird stealth craft and also confused sensors by painting road bridges various colours to make them look broken. Had it been a united Yugoslavia it would have been invincible, unfortunately Milosevic had made his career by playing up the various differences between South Slavonic peoples.

Chinese however still do look pretty united. Internet populism was expected by Americans to undermine Beijing has gone just the other way. Asians in general remember their many millennia of civilisation, including the Chinese invention of the printing press, gunpowder and the magnetic compass. So you get comments like:

“To the bigots we say “We ain’t Red Indians!”

“The next time you despicable Peeping Toms come outside our doorstep you can be prepared for real “accidents”. The indomitable spirit of the Chinese people to protect their motherland should not be underestimated. With this warning we don’t see how your public will take to such accident. Don’t push a people to the corner. Remember man proposes, God disposes.” (Dragon Subject: In death you Live.)

Yahoo did take note of some of it:

“U.S. attempts to portray Wang as a “hot-dogging” daredevil have angered China’s fiercely nationalistic public. “If I were you, I would have shot down the U.S. plane,” wrote one mourner. “American pigs! We’ll get you!” warned a third. In the absence of official approval for protests, many Chinese have expressed their anger and grief in Internet chatrooms and on bulletin boards.” (Friday April 20, Chinese pilot mourned in online memorial hall, Yahoo Technical News).

The intrusive American rudeness which helped provoke such feelings is yet another ‘unfact’ in our brave new world of commercial on-line media.

There has apparently been an intermittent ‘hacking war’, initially with Chinese attacking Japanese. “Lion also told Vision that he made the worm to tell the Japanese, ‘Chinese is not sheep.’” (A Chinese Call to Hack U.S. by Michelle Delio Apr. 11). A group called ‘Honkers’ did do some defacement of US government sites on the 1st May as a protest against US spy planes.

If there had been even a small group of Chinese dissidents supporting the American line, I’m sure we’d have been told of it. As it happened, Bush with all his arrogance had alienated almost everyone. Even European allies were silent in the USA’s hour of need. Taiwan was worried about its weapon sales – in the event they got about what had been expected before the crisis. But Taiwan also had mixed feelings, they need America but admire their bold mainland cousins.

The 1940s and 1950s saw the end of Europe’s global empires. They were replaced by two rival systems of ‘hegemony’, neither of them entirely negative. Both the USA and the USSR did work in breaking down Classical Capitalism and bourgeois culture, and the USSR helped break down white supremacy.

In the 1960s, things changed. The USA abolished racial segregation and the West as a whole came to accept female equality, which the USSR had done so much to pioneer. But the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was a huge setback to hopes that the two world rivals might peacefully converge on some tolerant social-democratic world order.

From the 1970s onwards, the USSR did definitely did pose more of a threat. But since the Soviet Union fell, the US has behaved much worse. As I see it, anything that limits their power must be a good thing. Even a resurgent Japan would be positive, though the Japanese have never been my favourite people.

China is not setting itself up as any alternative superpower. They merely seeking to rule those territories (including Tibet) that were generally recognised as part China at the time of the 1911 revolution. Even this is flexible, with the separation of the Mongolian Republic (Outer Mongolia) reluctantly conceded. Had the Lhasa authorities gone along with the British scheme for a Lhasa-centred ‘Outer Tibet’ supported by Britain’s Indian Empire, a small independent Tibet might have emerged in the 1930s. But that would have meant cutting ties with a wider vaguer Tibetan identity that merges seamlessly into the mainstream Chinese population. Which is why the Dalai Lama in the 1950s did concede Beijing’s sovereignty even over Lhasa and made his weird doomed attempt to work with Mao’s Communists. It was unwise, yet sovereignty once conceded cannot be revoked, those are the standard international rules.

Taiwan is the other key issue, but a lot of Taiwanese are of recent mainland origin and would like to reunify. And even on this regional issue, China is being moderate:

“The officer in the military think-tank said that Beijing would resist the temptation to ramp up its military spending and be sucked into an arms race across the Taiwan strait.

“”China will not join any arms race with the US. We will not be fooled because we have seen the example of what happened to the USSR,” he said. “Economic development is still our priority.”” (Strait talking, Financial Times Apr 25 2001).

One comment

  1. It is no surprise that the US acts like God Almighty. It makes the rules not only for itself but expect the world to comply; however, if they do not suit its interest at the time, will not hesitate to ignore them and make new ones.

    It is the chemeleon of politics American Style and Bush’s claims that the world envies America for its standards of living is a lie which is used to make out that America is really such a desirable place to live.
    Fact is, it oppresses its own people by stealth and too many citizens swallow its propaganda because of their faith in their government.

    Time will reveal that its own government is its worst enemy.

    Liked by 1 person

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