Regret May Not Be Good Enough

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A Chinese military policeman watches the U.S. ambassador's car

Everyone had a job to do onboard the dying Navy reconnaissance plane when it began to fall out of the sky. The two pilots up front were trying to save the aircraft, while the other 22 crew members in back were trying to destroy what was inside it. Two Chinese F-8 fighters had been tracking the plane closely, too closely, for 10 minutes. The U.S. flyers even recognized one of the pilots, Wang Wei, a notorious hotdogger who one time flew so close to an American plane that he could be seen holding up his e-mail address on a piece of paper. It was Wang's plane that clipped the EP-3's left wing, slashed one of its four propellers into pieces and smashed off the plane's nose before spiraling into the South China Sea. Rocked by the collision, the vibrating turboprop plunged 8,000 ft. before pilot Shane Osborn regained control. "Mayday! Mayday!" a flyer called into the radio, as the pilots shut down the most damaged engine, and the plane bucked and shuddered in indignation. There was no chance of making it 1,300 miles back to Okinawa or even to the Philippines. The closest airstrip was on the resort island of Hainan, known in Chinese legend as the "end of the world," where the sky and sea meet to form a perfect haven. It is also home to many Chinese military bases, the kind of place where honeymooners sit on the beach and watch the submarines surface offshore, the fighter jets buzz overhead. You couldn't pick a worse place to land one of the most highly classified planes the U.S. has ever built, full of secrets about how we gather secrets — if the pilots could manage to land at all.

While they wrestled the crippled plane, the crew had a familiar drill to follow: the "classified destruction plan," which assigns each crew member a sensitive part of the plane to demolish. Some of the steps — erasing computer hard drives that recorded the day's mission — were manageable even if the plane's violent rocking kept the crew strapped into their seats. But the most sophisticated eavesdropping gear was supposed to be destroyed in order to be saved, smashed with hammers and hatchets or stuffed into weighted bags and dumped out of the plane's cargo doors. Once the plane managed to land safely, there could be one last chance to cram secret papers into special containers and then detonate grenades inside them.

By the time news of the harrowing collision became public, a similar drill was being repeated in Washington and Beijing. Some on the front lines of the U.S.-China relationship were trying to save it, while others in the back seemed intent on blowing it up. Neither country was able to manage a clear response for days. In both there are hard-liners, who seemed to miss the days of cold war chest thumping, arrayed against accommodationists, who value, among other peace dividends, the $116 billion in annual trade. It was in the interest of both to let the other side know there were divisions within their ranks. That's the nature of the game, played this round by George W. Bush, a blunt-spoken Westerner whose father was once a special envoy to China, and President Jiang Zemin, an aging autocrat who staked his authority on building a better relationship with the West, only to come under fire at home for going too far. In a test of pride and power, two presidents fought to control the weapons of diplomacy, the tiny spaces between a concern, a regret and an apology.

Bush was at Camp David that saturday night with a group that included National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice when he got word of the incident. Twenty-four American servicemen and women were being held at the Lingshui air base on Hainan.

"How serious is it?" he asked Rice.

"I don't know," she said, and started working the phones back to Washington, talking with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld and relaying information to the President. Bush remained publicly silent all through Sunday as U.S. diplomats looked for a discreet way out of the impasse. Bush knew that whatever signals he sent went not only to the Chinese but also to the rest of the world, which was waiting to see how an inexperienced new president would handle his first foreign policy test, how his instinct for caution would play against his equally instinctive impatience.

It would have to be China, of course, that first crossed the new president: this was, after all, the only country left approaching a superpower, a rival and maybe a threat, a vast market and a nimble supplier. And yet Bush had made it clear all through his campaign that he rejected Bill Clinton's smooth acceptance of every Chinese outrage — the spy scandals, the weapons sales, the bullying of Taiwan — so long as nothing got in the way of our growing trade. Bush clearly sided with those who favored a tougher line when he took to calling China a "strategic competitor," not a partner. That shift pleased a whole range of constituencies: evangelical Christians worried about religious persecution, union protectionists, unthawed cold warriors, human rights activists. But the business lobby had other agendas, and they were all going to be watching closely.

The administration's initial response was to stay cool, keep quiet, give the Chinese room to move. "The message to the Chinese," says a White House official, "was, 'Guys, this is a very unfortunate incident. We'd like to get it wrapped up as quickly as possible, because if we can get it wrapped up soon, it won't become a crisis.'" But even Powell had trouble getting through for a private talk with anyone who mattered in Beijing, and the public tone was not encouraging. Chinese officials claimed that the U.S. plane had veered suddenly into the F-8 fighter, even though the EP-3E is about half as fast as and far less nimble than the Chinese jet. The collision had occurred about 70 miles off China's coast; China considers its sovereign airspace to extend 200 miles offshore, even though international agreements recognize only 12 miles. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao declared that the plane had violated Chinese airspace, landed without permission and thus lost its sovereign immunity — so the Chinese government would be perfectly within its rights go aboard to try to figure out the reason for the intrusion.

When satellite photographs showed the plane partly covered in tarps — the better to hide the work of prying Chinese engineers — it confirmed the administration's fears. While the EP-3 is an old plane, a model that began flying in 1969, its electronic guts are up-to-the-minute. No EP-3E has ever been shot down or captured, even though the "flying pig," as it is called, is a long-range, slow-flying unarmed aircraft. "The most important thing to the Chinese on that airplane was the data we had collected earlier that day," says Norman Polmar, an independent Navy expert. "That would tell them which of their systems is vulnerable to interception — are we able to intercept telephone conversations from Chinese naval headquarters to ships? Are we able to intercept radar transmissions at certain frequencies? — that's what the Chinese want to know."

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