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[P]
What an apology really means

By aphrael in Op-Ed
Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 07:57:48 AM EST
Tags: News (all tags)
News

It's been a week and a half or so now, and there's been no sign of progress: the US spy plane still sits on a Chinese airfield, and the crew is still being held by the Chinese authorities. China still demands an apology, and the US still refuses.

There's more going on here than is obvious from first glance. In point of fact, this is the largest geopolitical dispute since the Gulf War and the most serious dispute between the US and China since Korea.


Huh? I imagine is the general reaction to that entry, but it's true anyway. This is an accidental flash point in a serious argument over the extent of sovereignty and the nature of naval control.

It's a generally accepted principle in the western world that bodies of water which are not completely enclosed by a country are not controlled by it (except for a buffer zone along the coast of the country, whose width varies according to the intent for which the control is claimed and the treaty under which it is claimed); instead, it is an international free zone, open to vessels from all countries, and under the explicit control of none. The US could not claim soveriegnty over the Gulf of Mexico, nor could any of the countries bordering on the Mediterranean claim it as their own; even in the Caspian Sea, which is for all practical purposes completely under the control of Russia; the Russian Federation does not dispute the principle that it has no exclusive rights over it.

China's view, at least as applied to the South China Sea, is different. Since ancient times, the sea has been considered by the Chinese to be part of its territory. This has been effectively true at some times, and effectively not true at other times -- but, like the Chinese claim to sovereignty over Tibet, the claim has never been relinquished, and is still psychologically important in terms of the way people conceptualize *China*. The fact that other countries treat it as though it were international waters is, in Chinese eyes, a little bit like the German conception of the interwar status of Danzig: a territorial acquisition imposed by foreigners on the country without its consent (even more so in this case; Germany agreed to the interwar status of Danzig, but China has never signed a treaty which abrogated its claims to the South China Sea) and enforced on an unwilling population by force of arms.

So a US plane goes down over the South China Sea and lands at an airbase in China. (I'm leaving aside the details of the collision, as only the two militaries really know what happened, and anything anyone else says is speculation). China immediately demands an apology -- an apology for infringing Chinese territorial rights by flying a spy plane over Chinese waters. The US refuses -- as far as the US is concerned, its plane was comfortably in international waters.

The problem here is that, while it appears that all the two countries are arguing over is an apology, it goes deeper. The US can't apologize without in effect conceding the Chinese position that the South China Sea is part of Chinese territory -- which it, for economic, political, and military reasons, is not prepared to do. (It would irritate the other countries that border the South China Sea and claim islands within it; it would impose a theoretical risk to international shipping in the area by opening up the possibility that China could control which ships go through the sea; it would create an exception to a general international rule that oceans are international territory, providing a precedent for the breakdown of the rule elsewhere). Nor can China easily withdraw its demand for an apology; its territory was violated, in its view, by an arrogant bully -- and withdrawing the demand for an apology concedes the point that the South China Sea isn't its territory, which would be a massive concession almost unthinkable by a resurgent nationalist power.

So the diplomats must search for a way out -- while opinions are hardening on both sides. It looks to be a long standoff.

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Poll
The South China Sea is
o in international waters 68%
o part of China 5%
o part of Vietnam 0%
o part of the Philippines 3%
o part of Malaysia 0%
o part of Indonesia 0%
o part of Australia 9%
o vastor's private theme park 12%

Votes: 54
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What an apology really means | 28 comments (24 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
+1 fp (3.00 / 1) (#3)
by ritlane on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 08:13:57 PM EST

This is a very good analysis of the circumstances and their implications. This is not some sort of international ego battle (although I bet there is some of that thrown in)
I'm glad this steps beyond the two most common reactions that (most American) people have to these types of situations:

  • We're Americans, we are obviously right
  • We're Americans, we are obviously wrong




---Lane
I like fighting robots
Love me, love my dog (5.00 / 7) (#4)
by jabber on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 08:37:40 PM EST

This claim to control the "South China Sea" is dubious at best. The name alone is much maligned in the far east. Ask a Malaysian the name of that body of water, and they will most likely respond with something other than the South China Sea. Ask a Korean about the Sea of Japan, and they'll tell you that it's the East Sea. Nationalistic naming is a good way to mindfuck the little guy, though Mexico's attempts keep falling on deaf ears in the US. :)

China has been a member of the U.N. since the Fall of 1945. As per Article 3 of the UNITED NATIONS CONVENTION ON THE LAW OF THE SEA, International Waters are anything more than 12 miles from shore. The US plane was 60 or so miles out when the accident occured. China can not assert rights that are in violation of the guidelines of the U.N.. They can not demand, they can only request, and that is all they're doing.

Interestingly, Article 31 deals with who's responsible for accidents at sea - and IMO there's more to dispute there than elsewhere. In any case, unless China intends to butt heads with the whole of the U.N. (which it may) over Rights of Free Passage and International Waters, they will have to concede.

The problem is that this has gone on too long. The new President didn't back down as China hoped. He has no great love for China, and the purchase of his predecessor only aggrevates the issue. China needs to 'save face' now, more than dominate the South Pacific. N. Korea is ready to start testing missiles again. The Korea's are still close to reunification. India and Pakistan are flexing muscles at each other.

China needs to appear strong, and honorable. It can not afford to alienate the biggest consumer of it's manufacturing power, as that would be shooting itself in the foot, economically. It can not upset the nation whose support would bring the 2008 Olympics to Peking, since that would be a great shame. It can not afford to anger the nation who is politically in control of the Chinese plans for building over a hundred nuclear power plants throughout China in the next two decades. Their infrastructure, you see, can't support the transport of conventional fuel to the places where power is needed, and local nuke plants are the only viable solution they have if they want to get those areas out of the dark ages.

This is even bigger than the claim over a body of water, though this certainly is a concern.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

Very small rocks... (4.00 / 1) (#16)
by The Cunctator on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 01:53:11 AM EST

China is at least partially basing their claim on the assertion that there are some islands in the region over which they have sovereignty. The analyst who mentioned this also asserted that the islands were rather small. (But then at least they'd float...)

[ Parent ]
very small indeed (none / 0) (#25)
by Kellnerin on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 12:32:15 PM EST

The Spratly Islands are so small as to be frequently submerged at high tide. China may claim sovreignty, but then so do Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. I believe China bases its claim in part on the fact that bits of Chinese pottery have been discovered there, which is shaky at best since I doubt anyone buys the notion that there were Chinese ceramics craftsmen hanging out on these shoals way back in the olden days, churning out plates and bowls in between rebuliding their washed-out homes. It is smack in the middle of a trade route, however, as many ships carrying porcelain probably discovered, which makes it quite a convenient bit of real estate to lay claim to.
Somebody go tell Kellnerin it's time for her to change her sig. -johnny
[ Parent ]
But not that China (4.50 / 2) (#19)
by Vulch on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 05:24:50 AM EST

> China has been a member of the U.N. since the Fall of 1945.

Except that the China that joined the UN and held the seat on the Security Council for most of that time was the nationalist government based in Taiwan, not the mainland government.

Anthony

[ Parent ]

An interesting bit of linguistic semantics... (4.00 / 2) (#5)
by Speare on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 08:41:42 PM EST

On All Things Considered, on National Public Radio, there was an interesting interview with a specialist in Chinese-American diplomacy. I wish I took notes.

He suggested that the answer to the "you must apologize,"-vs-"we will not apologize" standoff will likely come in the form of crafty use of linguistics and semantics.

As it turns out, the Chinese equivalent of the word 'acknowledge' has different connotations, so if we were to say something to this effect in English,

    We acknowledge that the Chinese Government has come to the decision that the United States was responsible for the crash...
It would probably fill all of the needs of the Chinese heads of state: they'd take it as the US acknowledging China's power and correctness. It would probably fill all the needs of the American heads of state: not actually admitting responsibility for the crash.

Personally, I have a hard time understanding how two fighter jets could be bullied and surprised and attacked by a large, slow, propeller aircraft. I'm leery of claims like "our autopilot was engaged" or "their pilot was known to be a hotdog" or other claims that are difficult to evaluate independently. However, a fighter jet would have to be pretty recklessly close to a propeller craft to be struck by surprise.
 
[ e d @ h a l l e y . c c ]

Cultural Differences (none / 0) (#11)
by Your Mom on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 10:08:58 PM EST

This is the same situation that we were facing in the USS Greenville incident. Japan wanted an apology as a measure of regret that the inciden took place, however on the world stage, the US cannot apologize without accepting responsability for what transpired.

Additionally, I've heard reports that this particular pilot was known for his agressiveness, in particular one incident where he wrote his email address on a sheet of paper, and held it up, flying so close that the Americain aircrew could read it, reminicent of Top Gun.

"We were communicating. Keeping up international relations. Flipping him the bird, ma'am!" *Goose gives the instructor the middle finger*

--
"As far as I'm concerned, Osama bin Laden can eat a dick." -trhurler
[ Parent ]
Signs in windows (4.50 / 2) (#15)
by meldroc on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 12:35:14 AM EST

Additionally, I've heard reports that this particular pilot was known for his agressiveness, in particular one incident where he wrote his email address on a sheet of paper, and held it up, flying so close that the Americain aircrew could read it, reminicent of Top Gun.

The crew of the EP-3E should have responded with a sign saying "IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU ARE TOO CLOSE!"

[ Parent ]

apology without responsibility. (none / 0) (#18)
by ODiV on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 04:43:59 AM EST

"...the US cannot apologize without accepting responsability for what transpired."

If the US ever figures out how to apologize and smooth things over without taking responsibility, I'd really like to know how it's done. :)


--
[ odiv.net ]
[ Parent ]
But China's actions betray their true policy (3.20 / 5) (#6)
by sigwinch on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 09:01:41 PM EST

China immediately demands an apology --- an apology for infringing Chinese territorial rights by flying a spy plane over Chinese waters. The US refuses --- as far as the US is concerned, its plane was comfortably in international waters.
Sovereignty is defened with bullets and missiles, not by breaking off propellors with the fuselage of a warplane.

Face it, what happened was an idiotic testosterone-induced stunt carried out by a hotdog pilot. If he was really a war hero, they'd be giving parades to his unit, and a medal to his CO. If you find any mention of such glorious awards in the open press, you let me know. In fact, I'll bet $10 that his CO's asshole is now 4 sizes larger, if he's still alive.

And here's a question that nobody is asking: Was the Chinese fighter pilot really killed by the crash? Or did he commit suicide because he knew what would happen to him for personally causing this sort of incident? Or did China quietly collect him and make him disappear?

You ignore something else: those 24 soldiers still being alive is a miracle. They were lucky that the plane wasn't instantly destroyed (a few feet more and the wing would have been ripped off), they were lucky to have a pilot who could pull them out of the fall, and they were lucky to find any even halfway reasonable place to land. But for astonishing good fortune, we would now be talking about the 24 dead soldiers, and people would be seriously discussing a war of vengance, and these Chinese demands for apologies would mean instant revocation of MFN.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.

Re-read, more carefully. (none / 0) (#8)
by aphrael on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 09:11:00 PM EST

I'm not talking about why the Chinese knocked the plane down, or if they did. I'm talking about why they are demanding an apology. I think these are different issues entirely --- what the pilot did almost certainly was not authorized by the Chinese military high command.

[ Parent ]
I'm talking about the same thing (none / 0) (#28)
by sigwinch on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 05:07:47 PM EST

I'm talking about why they are demanding an apology.
So was I -- I just left the conclusions unspoken. I think they're demanding an apology for some combination of the following:
  1. They cannot bring themselves to lose face by admitting failure. In their eyes, even admitting that the incident was a pure accident would be unacceptable, because the Servants of the People Simply Do Not Make Mistakes. (C.f. the millions starved by Mao and the Cultural Revolution because of similar deliberate blindness w.r.t. food logistics.) If anything bad happened, it's the fault of the yankee imperialist scum. Q.E.D.
  2. They are cowardly hypocrites, who will not assert sovereignty from a position of strength, but will simper about it after the fact. In their intrigue-dulled minds, pushing around a couple of dozen techs and airmen is equivalent to defeating a division of Marines. They're wrong, but try arguing against 3000 years of tradition.
  3. They think it literally impossible that a fighter pilot would get a little too gung ho and do something dangerous. Ergo, it must have been the arrogant, vicious Americans who attacked their fighter with a propellor.
  4. They are splintered internally. Nobody knows what's going on, and nobody is willing to take resonsibility for anything. Blanket denial is a safe course, and blaming the U.S. is even better because all the politicos can agree on that.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

Thank you! (none / 0) (#17)
by Zeram on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 04:16:50 AM EST

Let me first state that I completely agree with you. I want to thank you for making me laugh my ass off. I needed that!


<----^---->
Like Anime? In the Philly metro area? Welcome to the machine...
[ Parent ]
Terminology (4.60 / 5) (#7)
by Bad Harmony on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 09:02:58 PM EST

I've noticed that many stories in the press are referring to the EP-3E aircraft as a "spy plane". To me, that choice of words is unfortunate. It suggests that there is something covert or illegal with the aircraft's mission, which is electronic surveillance in peacetime. In this case, the aircraft was collecting intelligence by monitoring Chinese radio transmissions from international airspace. In my opinion, anyone who broadcasts a radio signal into the ether has no right to complain if other people receive, decrypt, or record the signal. Unfortunately, the FCC has carved out domestic exceptions to this principle for the politically powerful.

5440' or Fight!

I was just thinking...hehehe (none / 0) (#9)
by regeya on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 09:22:27 PM EST

NOTE: Not being entirely serious, but being at least a little. Stow the 0's and 1's, willya? Thanks.

Unless I'm off my meds, I saw Colin Powell (sp) on a nightly news broadcast clearly stating that the U.S. was sorry for what happened. In rebuttal, a Chinese political analyst stated that that probably would have been effective had Dubba not made a demand that the pilots and plane be returned. Hm, get the sword and pike, and get Mr. Bush ready while we're at it. We've got an apology to send to China.

Seriously, did anyone else see this? It wasn't an official press conference; I think it was "This Week" or something like that. From all I'm hearing (and of course we in the U.S. get our news filtered...no, no censorship here *chuckle* but it sounds like all that will satisfy China is for Mr. Bush to disappear. Am I the only one getting that vibe?

[ yokelpunk | kuro5hin diary ]

Check the prescription label... (none / 0) (#12)
by davidduncanscott on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 10:40:03 PM EST

the expiration date may have passed.

General Powell was very careful to say that the US "regretted the incident", which is to say that we would prefer that it had not happened. President Bush said the same thing in almost the same words the next day.

[ Parent ]

What's the apology for? (none / 0) (#10)
by Dacta on Tue Apr 10, 2001 at 09:50:53 PM EST

I thought the Chinese were after an apology for bringing down their aircraft - more than the territorial issue.

I'm not saying the territorial issue isn't there - it is an issue, especially with the Spratly (sp?) islands, but I didn't think the Chinese were making a big issue out of it in this case.



No big deal (none / 0) (#20)
by pallex on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 10:00:49 AM EST

This is hardly even mentioned in the u.k. news any more, after people got excited by the idea of a nuclear war over it, then realized that wasnt going to happen.

America has apologized again, and they`ll be going home soon. The end.

US spying (none / 0) (#21)
by bluesninja on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 10:03:29 AM EST

The real issue, at least according to a Chinese diplomat I saw on CNN, is that the Chinese aren't really too thrilled about the fact that the US is sending spy planes to spy on them. Although it is withing the Americans rights to fly over the area they were flying over, it is also the Chinese right to buzz the spyplanes with fighters.

How do you think the Americans would react if the situation were reversed? If an American pilot was killed while harrying a Chinese spy plane off the California coast? There would be hell to pay, and the Americans would be demanding a hell of a lot more than an apology, I suspect. American gov't doesn't seem to get the fact that spying on other sovreign nations isn't the way to make friends and look like the good guys.

It's all moot now anyways, since GWB sent a letter of apology this morning and the plane and crew are on their way home.

/spm

What if...? (4.50 / 2) (#22)
by Alarmist on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 11:27:42 AM EST

How do you think the Americans would react if the situation were reversed? If an American pilot was killed while harrying a Chinese spy plane off the California coast? There would be hell to pay, and the Americans would be demanding a hell of a lot more than an apology, I suspect.

I disagree.

There would be hell to pay. A lot of people would be clamoring about war, or some other punitive measures. Here's what would happen:

A lot of people would talk. Pundits would speculate. In the end, the US pilot's CO would get several feet up his ass, and would be lucky to get away without a reduction in grade. A lot of pilots would be sent to training schools, and anyone who was ordered to fly intercept/escort jobs would be trained mercilessly. We wouldn't go to war, and nobody else would get killed.

The same sort of thing has happened to us plenty of times before; US submarines shadowing Soviet ones have occasionally collided with them, and I'm sure the same thing has happened to us. Most of the time, it's kept quiet and not discussed outside military circles. The only action that is ever taken is that whoever is responsible for the accident gets into a lot of trouble.

Never forget that these sorts of things are a part of the international relations game. Large countries that encounter each other in this context (one spying on another) have developed a set of unwritten (and written) rules about how this game is played over the course of many years and many incidents. The object is to avoid going to war at all rational costs. That is why these incidents will not, barring external factors (such as unstable/nonrational governments), escalate into war.

Wars have been started for less than what happened here, but such wars are usually fought more for emotional than rational reasons.


[ Parent ]

re: What if...? (2.00 / 1) (#23)
by bluesninja on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 12:02:25 PM EST

The same sort of thing has happened to us plenty of times before; US submarines shadowing Soviet ones have occasionally collided with them, and I'm sure the same thing has happened to us. Most of the time, it's kept quiet and not discussed outside military circles. The only action that is ever taken is that whoever is responsible for the accident gets into a lot of trouble.

But then we had a situation where there were 2 superpowers, in a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction if it ever came to a head.

In this case, China is not a superpower on the scale of the US (not yet anyways), and has a bit of an inferiority compex about the US respecting it's sovreignty. On the flip-side, the US does not want to show any weakness that would diminish it's standing a The Superpower on the planet. The dynamics are totally different than the cold-war situation.

Looked at like this, China has alot more to gain by pressing the issue, because the US is going to look like the big bullies, even though i don't think anybody believes that it was the American plane that caused the accident. They know the US won't start a war. But the US has to maintain it's position of authority in the world, without pissing off too many of the little guys.

When you get these kinds of games of chicken, you sometimes end up with war, especially if the strengths are unequal and mutual destruction isn't assured. Look for this kind of thing to get alot worse if the American nuclear defense sats get in the air...

/spm

[ Parent ]

sheer MADness (none / 0) (#27)
by Kellnerin on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 01:03:49 PM EST

The same sort of thing has happened to us plenty of times before; US submarines shadowing Soviet ones have occasionally collided with them, and I'm sure the same thing has happened to us. Most of the time, it's kept quiet and not discussed outside military circles. The only action that is ever taken is that whoever is responsible for the accident gets into a lot of trouble.
But then we had a situation where there were 2 superpowers, in a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction if it ever came to a head.

In this case, China is not a superpower on the scale of the US (not yet anyways), and has a bit of an inferiority compex about the US respecting it's sovreignty. On the flip-side, the US does not want to show any weakness that would diminish it's standing a The Superpower on the planet. The dynamics are totally different than the cold-war situation.

I don't think there's ever been as appropriate an acronym as MAD. How many nuclear missiles does a power need before Destruction becomes Mutually Assured? If China doesn't have this number, then is "Mutually Assured Large Loss of Life" of "Destruction for Some People, Hideously Miserable Existence for Others" not a compelling enough reason to avoid going to war?

Personally, I'd reword your statement, "China is not a superpower ... not anymore, anyways," in the sense that Rome is not a superpower anymore, though China still has the ego to match. They don't have much of an inferiority complex about the US respecting their sovreignty -- you don't tend to fear that kind of thing from a country that's willing to trade with you rather than march over your borders and just take whatever they fancy. What China might be worried about is not being taken entirely seriously when they stake a spurious claim on a stretch of water (island, mountainous nation) that isn't widely recognized to be theirs, but they're probably used to that.
Somebody go tell Kellnerin it's time for her to change her sig. -johnny
[ Parent ]

US:China :: US:USSR (none / 0) (#24)
by krlynch on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 12:27:22 PM EST

While I don't know if the US ever lost any pilots over it, but during the Cold War, this sort of surveillance used to happen on the part of both the US/NATO and the USSR every day. The Soviets flew large, slow reconnaissance aircraft in the polar regions north of Canada and Alaska, and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada and the US, as well as the eastern borders of NATO nations in Eurasia and the North Atlantic. And the US/NATO countries did the same things along the Soviet borders. And in most every case the opposing side scrambled interceptors to closely shadow the surveillance aircraft. On occassion there were "incidents" that involved bumpings, but I don't know if they ever resulted in deaths.

[ Parent ]

US:China != US:USSR (1.00 / 1) (#26)
by bluesninja on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 12:36:28 PM EST

Yes, but the fact remains that the goal of China is (presumably) to drum up some respect within the US gov't for the fact that they are a sovreign nation deserving of respect. Totally different from the US/USSR dynamic, which was between equals.

Today, I doubt the US, being the only superpower, would tolerate widespread foreign surveillance.

[ Parent ]

What an apology really means | 28 comments (24 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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