WHEN CHINA boldly seized a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea last December and initially refused to give it back, the incident ignited a weeklong political standoff and conjured memories of a similar event more than 15 years ago.

In April 2001, just months before the 9/11 attacks gripped the nation, a U.S. Navy spy plane flying a routine reconnaissance mission over the South China Sea was struck by a People’s Liberation Army fighter jet that veered aggressively close. The mid-air collision killed the Chinese pilot, crippled the Navy plane, and forced it to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield, touching off a tense international showdown for nearly two weeks while China refused to release the two-dozen American crew members and damaged aircraft.

The sea drone captured in December was a research vessel, not a spy craft, according to the Pentagon, so its seizure didn’t risk compromising secret military technology. That wasn’t the case with the spy plane, which carried a trove of surveillance equipment and classified signals intelligence data.

For more than a decade, U.S. officials have refused to say what secrets China might have gleaned from the plane. Two years after the incident, journalists saw a redacted U.S. military report, which revealed that although crew members had jettisoned documents out an emergency hatch as they flew over the sea and had managed to destroy some signals-collection equipment before the plane fell into the hands of the Chinese, it was “highly probable” China had still obtained classified information from the plane. Attempts by journalists and academics to learn more over the years have been unsuccessful.

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