On April 1, 2001, a United States spy plane on a regular reconnaissance mission over the South China Sea collided with a Chinese fighter jet, killing its pilot and leaving 24 American crew members, along with their plane, stranded on the island of Hainan for nearly two weeks of tension. Although Beijing and Washington managed to defuse the crisis very quickly, the incident encapsulated the volatile and fragile nature of military manoeuvring between the two great powers.
Last week – 17 years later – there was almost a feeling of déjà vu when news broke out that two American and Chinese warships had come dangerously close to colliding in the South China Sea.
Again, both sides accused each other of nearly triggering an international crisis. The US side blamed the Chinese destroyer for using “an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre” when it tried to intercept the American warship, which was sailing close to the reef claimed by China.
The Chinese defence ministry spokesman slammed the US for sending warships into waters near China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea, “gravely threatening China’s sovereignty and security, severely damaging relations between the two militaries and significantly undermining regional peace and stability”.
The intense face-off and the near miss, which came on top of a raging American trade war against China and other bilateral tensions, have heightened concerns that worsening ties, particularly between the militaries, could lead to not only a cold war but possibly a hot one as well.
The incident came after US Secretary of Defence James Mattis cancelled a trip to Beijing, and the Chinese government last month denied a port visit to Hong Kong by an American warship and recalled China’s top navy officer from a visit to the United States. In turn, those moves closely followed Washington’s decision to sanction the Chinese military procurement department and its top general over their purchases of Russian fighter jets and missile systems.
The Chinese idiom of caqiang zouhuo springs to mind. While its literal meaning is that of a gun going off accidentally while being polished, it has been widely used to refer to an accident that sparks a conflict.
Since US President Donald Trump came to power, Washington has intensified naval and aerial patrols in the South China Sea, much of which is claimed by China, in the name of “freedom of navigation operations”. It has also encouraged its allies, including Britain, Australia, France and Japan, to do the same.
While the US claims it does not take sides in territorial claims in the disputed waters, its military operations there are effectively aimed at maintaining its influence in the Asia-Pacific and pushing back China’s efforts to expand its sphere of influence in the region.
Furthermore, as other claimants for the disputed waters – including, mainly, the countries of Southeast Asia – are no match for China’s strength, Washington will have to stand up to Beijing, or so the argument goes.
But the reality is that even as Washington has accused China of “militarising” the South China Sea through the creation of artificial islands and the installation of military equipment on disputed territory in the area, China has shifted its diplomatic approach by forging closer economic and political ties with Southeast Asian countries to offset their concerns over the territorial disputes.
In essence, what is taking place in the South China Sea is a constant power play between the reigning power and the rising power.
Some Western analysts said the near-collision between the US and Chinese warships signalled China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea, just as they said of the Chinese fighter jet’s manoeuvring 17 years ago when it came within metres of the US spy plane.
For sure, the two incidents may have inspired fears, but the truth of the matter is that the US never stopped conducting regular surveillance operations off the Chinese coast, most of which would surely have encountered Chinese military interceptions.
Now, as it tries harder to test China’s patience by intensifying naval and aerial patrols in the South China Sea, it is small wonder that last week’s incident did not occur sooner.
In a way, the 17-year gap between the two incidents shows both the skill and the restraint of the two militaries, despite their rising rivalry.
But looking ahead, the likelihood that an accident could spark a possible military conflict is increasing, particularly at a time when President Xi Jinping has abandoned China’s long-standing foreign policy of keeping a low profile, stepped up efforts to increase its influence in the region and taken a firmer stance on disputed territory.
In June, Xi told Mattis in a Beijing meeting that China would not give up one inch of its territory passed down by its ancestors, an unusually blunt message.
From the Chinese military’s perspective, the US military’s constant reconnaissance and the freedom of navigation off the Chinese coast and the waters claimed by China are not unlike someone with hostile intent circling around its neighbourhood, which logically calls for interceptions and even confrontations.
Furthermore, China’s naval and air force capabilities have come a long way since the spy plane incident 17 years ago. That incident occurred just two years after US planes dropped precision bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, in what is now Serbia, killing three Chinese citizens. The US claimed the bombing was a mistake but the Chinese believed the act was deliberate.
Now the constant question is this – would Americans really want to go to war with China over a bunch of rocks and sand dunes, as some Western analysts have argued?
To end the column on a less heavy note, China has still failed to learn from America over how to come out on top of public opinion through media engagements and other public-relations exercises. Tang Jiaxuan, the foreign minister at the time of the spy-plane incident, later lamented in his memoir about American skills of “manipulating the media” by taking the initiative of announcing the mid-air collision and putting China at a disadvantage.
This occurred again as the US made public the near collision of the warships through its media two days after the incident, along with aerial photos, and all China did was issue angry denunciations through the ministries of foreign affairs and defence.
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper