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Navy Admiral Describes Aircraft Incident in South China Sea

Navy Admiral Describes Aircraft Incident in South China Sea

Statement by Admiral Dennis C. Blair, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, on U.S. and Chinese aircraft incident, Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii, Sunday, April 1, 2001. (Concern over delay in allowing crew members to contact units). Source: Washington File, (EUR109) U.S. Department of State, Washington D.C., April 2, 2001.

Admiral Dennis C. Blair, commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Command, addressed the media during a press conference April 1 concerning the U.S. Navy EP-3 that was intercepted by two People's Republic of China fighter aircraft on March 31.

Blair expressed concern that 18 hours after the emergency landing, crew members have not been able to contact their unit or families. He also explained that if a Chinese aircraft were off Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, the United States would have handled the situation differently.

Admiral Blair stated that the Chinese fighter bumped the wing of the larger, slower U.S. Navy aircraft, which was conducting routine operations about 70 miles off the Chinese Island of Hainan in international airspace. The U.S. pilot declared an emergency and reportedly made a safe landing at an airfield on Hainan Island.

Following is the transcript of the statement released by the U.S. Pacific Command: (begin transcript)

Admiral Dennis C. Blair, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. and Chinese aircraft incident, Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii, Sunday, April 1, 2001.

Adm. Blair: Good morning, let me tell you what I know about this incident involving our aircraft in Hainan and I have a chart here that I'll be referring to. About 18 hours ago, when it was the middle of the morning China time, one of our surveillance aircraft was on a routine operation in the South China Sea. It was about 70 miles off the Chinese Island of Hainan in international airspace, and I'll show you the positions in a minute.

Chinese fighters intercepted the aircraft, and one of them bumped into the wing of the EP-3 aircraft. At that time the pilot of the aircraft, declared a mayday. A mayday is an in-flight emergency when the pilot figures that there is enough danger to his aircraft that he needs to go to the nearest airfield and land it in order to be safe for his crew and his airplane. He declared that mayday emergency and then turned to the airfield at Lingshui, which was the closest airfield to land. Now let me show you here what I'm talking about.

The point where the collision occurred is here, about 70 nautical miles off of the island of Hainan. The aircraft declared an emergency and turned and landed at the airfield called Lingshui here. This red line is the approximate 12-nautical mile limit, which defines the territorial water and above it the airspace of a country. The air and water space outside is international air and water space open for everybody to use.

The last message that we had from the crew of the airplane was when they landed safely at Lingshui, and the crew informed us that all 24 military personnel on board were safe and the plane had landed safely.

That's what I know. Now, let me tell you what should have happened in a situation like this. If a Chinese aircraft had been 70 miles off of Kaneohe here in Hawaii, had had some sort of collision or damage, and declared an in-flight emergency and said that it was coming into Kaneohe, we would have assisted. We would have talked it in, had a crash crew out on the ramp in case it had trouble, and then would have provided assistance to the crew of that aircraft to get in touch with their homebase or their government.

The airplane itself, military aircraft of all countries in situations like this, have sovereign immunity. That is no other country can go aboard them or keep them. They are in sovereign-immune territory. So, we would have assisted any members of the crew who were hurt. We would have respected the immunity of the aircraft. We would have gotten the crew in touch with its homebase, and we would have made arrangements with that country to come in, fix the aircraft and get it back on its way. That's what the international obligations of all of us are in situations like this.

It's been 18 hours now, and that has not happened. And, that's what we are waiting for. We have heard from the representatives of the government of China that the crew is safe, and that's good. And in fact, we have notified all of the families of the crew members onboard. I think we still have one to go, but we have notified virtually all of them that their family members are safe.

We are waiting, right now, for the Chinese government to give us the kind of cooperation that's expected of countries in situations like this, so that we can repair the plane, our people can return, and we can go on about our business. So let me stop there and take any questions that you may have.

QUESTION: What do you know about the Chinese pilot? Is the pilot still missing? What do you know about that?

Adm. Blair: I don't have any additional information on that. The Chinese have announced that they've been looking and that's all we know.

QUESTION: The interception or the bumping of the U.S. plane, was that intentional or accidental? And why were they intercepting the plane in the first place if they were in international airspace?

Adm. Blair: Let me talk a little bit about that. The routine operations that the United States conducts with military aircraft off the China coast are routinely intercepted by Chinese aircraft. They come up, take a look, report what they see and fly back. This is pretty routine activity. I must tell you though that the intercepts by Chinese fighters over the past couple months have become more aggressive to the point we felt they were endangering the safety of Chinese and American aircraft. And we launched a protest at the working level. This is not a big deal, but we went to the Chinese and said, "Your aircraft are not intercepting in a professional manner. There is a safety issue here." So, this was a pattern of what we considered to be increasingly unsafe behavior.

Let me also paint the picture for you, since I've seen the Chinese news reports that somehow our airplane turned into theirs and caused this collision. An EP3 is about the size of say a 737. It flies generally about 300 knots. The Chinese aircraft involved is about like an F16. It's a fighter aircraft. It flies at about twice that speed. Big airplanes like this fly straight and level on their path. Little airplanes zip around them. I don't think there's much question as to who has the impact under international airspace rules. The faster more maneuverable aircraft has the obligation to stay out of the way of the slower aircraft. Our aircraft fly routinely straight and level. It's pretty obvious as to who bumped into whom. I'm going on common sense now. As I say, we have not even talked to our crew since they have been in Lingshui. That's the most important thing to us now - getting in touch with our crew.

QUESTION: So at this point it looks like an accident, the bumping. Even though they shouldn't have been that close, it looks like an accident?

Adm. Blair: If I had to guess right now, I would say it's an accident. It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air. It's too dangerous for everybody, and clearly, it was dangerous in this Chinese case, as well.

QUESTION: This comes at a particularly touchy time for the U.S. military and the Pacific but also the relations since the Bush administration has taken over, the dismissal of the two scholars, etc. Have there been discussions about how this might affect Chinese/American relations?

Adm. Blair: You know it's interesting; you hear a lot of talk especially from the Chinese side about this cold war mentality. This is an example to me of how the Chinese can show this is not a cold war mentality anymore. That we do the things countries are supposed to do when there are in-flight emergencies, so I very much hope the Chinese will do what I described to you, and this can be a positive event in terms of U.S./Chinese relations. I hope it will turn out to be an accident happened; everybody acted properly; and we got on with other things. We all know about what's going on in terms of U.S./Chinese relations these days, but this could be a positive. And that's what I'd like it to be, but as time goes on, it's increasingly worrisome. It's been 18 hours, and we don't have a phone call yet from our crew there. We're talking about a place that has telephones.

QUESTION: The Chinese government, you said, did contact the Navy. What transpired from that conversation besides your men were okay?

Adm. Blair: The Chinese did not contact us. Our representatives contacted Chinese officials in Beijing, and it was during that conversation that we received the word our 24 crew members were alright.

QUESTION: Is that all they said?

Adm. Blair: I just have a summary of the conversation, and it's about as I told you. I don't have real details on it.

QUESTION: What's the extent of damage to the U.S. plane?

Adm. Blair: Well, it could fly 70 nautical miles, and that's about all we know. Question: How sophisticated of an airplane is an EP-3? Someone had described it as a treasure trove of intelligence equipment?

Adm. Blair: I'm not going to go into details of the capability of it. It's a surveillance aircraft. It was operating on a routine mission in international airspace.

QUESTION: Where is the aircraft based, and what were they doing in the area?

Adm. Blair: The airplane was flying out of Kadena Air Base, which is located on the island of Okinawa. They were on a routine mission. This is not the first time we've conducted missions like this in this part of the world, and they were just chugging along in broad daylight.

QUESTION: When was the last time they had contact with the base in Japan?

Adm. Blair: The last message we had from the plane was after it had landed in Lingshui. We had this radio message that I told you about that said, "We've landed, and we're okay." That's the last we've heard from the plane.

QUESTION: You mentioned that if it had been a Chinese plane off Kaneohe Bay, we would have treated the situation differently. Are you saying that certainly within 18 hours, we would have had the crew members calling their own government? How differently would we have handled the situation?

Adm. Blair: You have it exactly. We would have gotten the pilot right to a telephone, said here's a phone, call home, tell them you're okay and we would have been in contact with the Chinese government saying, "What do you need to help?" And we would have stayed out of the aircraft and away from it, because we recognize that is what the international rules say. That is what we would have been doing, and it would not have taken us 18 hours to do this. Question: What is the feeling around the Navy right now. Are you worried that something inappropriate may be happening with these crew members?

Adm. Blair: We just don't know. We just don't know.

QUESTION: When you launched your complaint about the Chinese getting too close, too reckless with their interceptions, what kind of response did the Chinese government give you in response to your complaint?

Adm. Blair: We did not get a satisfactory response. Let me just put it that way. We also have talks once a year with the Chinese to discuss the subject of conducting operations in the air and at sea safely. So, this has been a subject between us and the Chinese before, but we felt that as I said, starting several months ago their flying professionalism was on the point of being dangerous to them and to our planes. And clearly, with the events of yesterday it has not improved.

QUESTION: What wheels are in motion to get the men and aircraft home right now?

Adm. Blair: We are talking with the Chinese both in Beijing and in Washington. And in China, personnel from the embassy have made arrangements to, and our Consul General who is closest to Hainan has made arrangements to, travel to Hainan in order to link up with our people. So, that's what's happening on the ground. Thanks very much everybody; we'll keep you informed as we get more information.

(end transcript)


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).