April 4, 2001

Spy plane drama a blast from the past

The story we are getting about the "accidental" downing of an EP-3 spy plane, packed with sensitive electronic equipment, over the South China sea, and its emergency landing on Hainan island, at a Chinese military base, makes absolutely no sense – no matter whom is doing the telling.


The Chinese say that the American plane, having intruded into their airspace, suddenly veered into one of two Chinese jet fighters on its tail. This is hardly credible: you don't have to be a military specialist to figure out that a jet fighter has a lot more maneuverability than the propeller-driven EP-3. Either the ChiComs are sending their pilots to the Chinese equivalent of the Comedy Driving School, or something else occurred that neither side is talking about. But word, as usual, is getting out. According to a report in the Taipei Times, the spy plane was collecting information on China's most advanced warship when the alleged collision took place. The spy plane then tried to hightail it out of there, when it was forced down by warning fire from the other Chinese fighter. Citing an anonymous "intelligence source," the Taipei newspaper reports that "the source – who had monitored the incident by radar and also listened to cockpit exchanges – said he believed the EP-3 was forced to land by the Chinese fighter plane at an airport on Hainan." While none of this is confirmed, it sounds very credible, or at least possible: if true, it points to a deliberate provocation, a gauntlet hurled in the path of the American hegemon – one that the Bush administration is all too eager to pick up.


The American side of the story is even more dubious than the Chinese version. US officials claim that the collision was so damaging to the spy plane that it had no choice but to send out a "Mayday" signal and make an "emergency landing" – at one of the biggest and most strategically important Chinese military bases in the region! Pardon me for asking, but isn't the idea of running a military spy operation to avoid capture at all costs? If they had fallen into the sea, surely the area would have been swarming with US ships in very short order – or else what do we have all those bases over in Japan and the Philippines for? The Taipei Times reveals that "this is not the first time that a US surveillance plane such as the EP-3 has tried to collect information on the most advanced fighting ship in the Chinese navy, which poses a major threat to US aircraft carriers with its lethal Sunburn anti-ship missiles." The US has also complained that this aerial game of cat-and-mouse occurred with greater frequency in recent weeks. In that case, why was this great turtle of an airplane – propeller-driven for god's-sake, and packed with highly-sensitive spying devices – dangled in front of the Chinese, like a big fat ladybug lazily circling a frog?


We don't have a lot of answers, yet, just questions: but perhaps, in looking at history, and searching for precedents, we can find some clue as to what is going on here, with the image of Gary Powers, downed over the Soviet Union at the dawn of the cold war, coming immediately to mind. On May 1, 1960, Powers took off in the top-secret U-2 spy plane, which had so far eluded all Soviet efforts to down it. The Soviet Sputnik had just been launched, and US military circles were in an uproar: after a short lull, overflights of Soviet territory were resumed, even as preparations were under way for the Paris peace summit. When the Soviets announced, on May 5th, that they had shot down an American spy plane, the US government at first tried to push the story that that plane's mission was entirely meteorological – but this was rendered completely untenable by the reappearance of Powers as the captive of the Soviets. Brought before a Soviet court and charged with espionage, he was slapped with a ten-year sentence – and wound up serving only 17 months. Exchanged for a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, Powers returned to the US a hero, but eventually wound up a somewhat embittered man, convinced – as he says in his memoirs – that he had become a political pawn in the cold war chess game. His book, Operation Overflight, was very critical of the CIA. After his release from a Soviet prison, he was hired by Lockheed as a test pilot. Unaware that the US government was his hidden benefactor, Powers worked for Lockheed for seven years, but when they got wind of his book – and that it was highly critical of the CIA – the hero was promptly dumped. He died in a helicopter crash, in Los Angeles, while piloting for a radio station.


The parallels between the U-2 incident, and the Hainan collision, are eerie and unsettling. As with the U-2, the downing of the EP-3 was the climactic denouement of a series of incidents, in which American surveillance efforts were, at first, largely successful – only to have the whole program come crashing down on the heads of embarrassed US policymakers. While this was not exactly an American overflight – the U-2 penetrated deep into Soviet airspace – the Chinese consider the arena of the encounter to be under Chinese sovereignty. Indeed, this is one of the major regional issues, second only to Taiwan: how far out from the mainland into the South China Sea does Beijing's authority extend? What the US considers "international waters" are seen by the Chinese to be within their rightful jurisdiction. This question, in turn, is intertwined with the issue of the Spratley Islands, a collection of practically useless atolls that at least 6 different nations lay claim to: not only China, but also the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. This is a region fairly bristling with flashpoints, any one of which could set off a major military conflict involving the US, China, and inevitably dragging in others.


In this case, as in the U-2 incident, both sides appear to be lying, to some extent, for reasons of state: and both sides, as in 1960, are using this as an opportunity to make propaganda, with the Chinese demanding an apology, and the Bush administration making good on secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's startling thesis, revealed barely two weeks earlier by the [London] Guardian, that China was now "the principal threat to American global dominance."


Indeed, the newly-aggressive behavior of the Chinese, exemplified by the Hainan incident, can in large part be seen as a direct response to this new American stance. The recent decision to end all negotiations with the North Koreans, the news that the US sale of sophisticated Aegis weaponry to Taiwan is imminent, and the stepped up propaganda campaign aimed at Beijing in such international forums as the United Nations – this is the context in which the interception and downing of the American spy plane has to be understood. The Chinese are reacting to a perceived threat. At the risk of committing the sin of "moral equivalence," if we "flip the script," as Tony Karon of Time magazine puts it, it is easy to see why the Chinese are p-o'ed:

"Imagine a Chinese plane flying a surveillance mission off the Florida coast colliding with an Air Force F-16 sent on an aggressive monitoring mission. The U.S. fighter goes down and the pilot is lost; the Chinese plane is forced to land on US soil. The incident occurs at a moment when China is about to supply a package of sophisticated weapons to Cuba."


But an imperial nation, such as ours, is hardly willing to put itself on the same level as others: by definition, the world's only superpower is allowed to do things impermissible for others. What would be an act of war, committed by anyone else, is, for Americans, a simple act of droit de seigneur. But in f*cking-over the rest of the world, we provoke a reaction that, in Asia at this moment, seems to be breaking out all over. What Chalmers Johnson calls the "blowback" from the ongoing military occupation of much of Eastasia, and America's "forward stance" in the Pacific, is already happening in Japan: not only on account of the Ehime Maru, but due to the long history of violent incidents involving US troops stationed at Okinawa. The latest incident, involving the sudden appearance of a US submarine at a Japanese port without notice, takes the resentment to a higher level, raising as it does the stark picture of Japan as a US vassal whose consent is not required. In South Korea, the resentment of US bases is combining with anger at Washington's abrupt dismissal of the ruling government's "Sunshine policy" toward the North. The springtime of Korean reunification has been spoiled by a Bushian frost, as Cold War, Version 2.O, is released by the Rumsfeld-Rice faction, now in the ascendant in the foreign policy councils of this administration.


Both sides, I want to emphasize, need this new cold war: Beijing, because the economic consequences of the global downturn in Asia are particularly harsh – and, politically, potentially catastrophic for the regime. The downturn could not have come at a more inauspicious time for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): just as the ongoing crisis of the state-owned sector is reaching climactic proportions. Without an external enemy to focus the hatred and frustration of the average Chinese, and divert it away from its proper target – the CCP – the economic crisis would turn all that energetic hatred inward, and the whole system would implode. As a means to pump up the economy, as well as political support, a foreign threat to the very sovereignty of the Chinese nation has the revivifying effect of a sudden shot in the arm. The jolt of military spending can reanimate, for a time, the corpse of a collectivist economy, either "market socialist," or state-capitalist – and, more importantly, direct those short-term benefits to the politically well-connected.


The same principles operate here in the US. We need the same kind of jolt, and for the same reasons. There is also the psychological and political need for foreign enemies – a necessary diversion away from the domestic problems, such as high taxation and government intrusion, that threaten the political status quo. We shall have a new cold war because both sides require it, the Americans no less than the Chinese. America is always in search of enemies, it seems, and it is no wonder that it has found another. This has been the abiding passion of many conservatives of the "neo" variety since the end of the first cold war. Having once allied with the Chinese Communists against their "revisionist" former comrades in the Kremlin, right-wing circles in the US are now embarked, in Orwellian fashion, on a holy crusade against the "godless" Commies of Beijing. Richard Nixon's opening to China was the beginning of a long, and bizarre partnership, in which Chinese Communist propaganda was indistinguishable from material that appeared in, say, Commentary magazine, or National Review: the Soviet Union was "the principal enemy of the world's peoples," declared the Beijing Review, a line that was faithfully echoed by the dwindling band of pro-Beijing communists in the West, including the US. For a while there, from the mid-70s up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Committee on the Present Danger and the Beijing-loyal Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) marched in lockstep. But, alas, it was an ironic moment that, being too good to be true, could not last.


It is typical of our hypocritical and generally clueless "movement" conservatives that they would declare holy war on Beijing as it moved away from Marxism-Leninism and toward a much freer economic system, one which allows for the potential of greater political diversity. But our hardliners reinforce theirs. China's hardliners have been handed a pretext for overruling and silencing their moderate, or even pro-Western factional opponents. With reformers already in retreat, and China generally withdrawing from the radical privatization plans initiated by the Communist party only a few years ago, the Hainan incident is bound to become the rallying point and symbol of rising Chinese nationalism, especially among the young – a generation that could have and should have been pro-American.


I am not at all surprised at the news that the Chinese government may put the captured American crew on trial: the [London] Times posted a story to that effect as I finished up this column, as if to confirm my ominous sense of deja-vu. It is Gary Powers all over again, only this time to the 24th power. I have the uneasy feeling that we'll all soon be digging bomb shelters in our back yards, while, over at the local elementary school, they go through the "duck and cover" air raid drills that gave life its weird, surreal edge for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. To complete the picture, even Russian spies are back in the news. We are going back in time – not back to a golden age, but regressing to a more primitive, less promising era, a kind of intellectual and political ice age, in which all foreign policy discussion is frozen in place, Big Government is a military "necessity," and the prospects for peace and liberty are dim indeed.


Amid the gloom, there are still glimmers of humor, however dark. When told of the US claim that the inside of the downed spy plane constituted sovereign US territory, and that the Chinese had no right to enter it, a top Chinese official asked: "Well then how is it that it landed in China?" For the Bush administration, there can be no good answer to that question.

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