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ABC NEWS WORLD NEWS TONIGHT SUNDAY (6:30 PM ET) April 1, 2001, Sunday

US SPY PLANE MAKES EMERGENCY LANDING AFTER COLLIDING WITH CHINESE FIGHTER JET


CAROLE SIMPSON, anchor:

Tonight there are concerns about national security and a US military flight crew that was forced to make an emergency landing during a surveillance flight along China's southern coast. The US spy plane was equipped with sophisticated intelligence-gathering technology. We begin with ABC's national security correspondent John McWethy at the Pentagon. John:

JOHN McWETHY reporting:

Carole, the American aircraft was intercepted by several Chinese fighter jets in international waters. Those fighter jets, one of them apparently clipped the wing of the American aircraft, severely damaging it and forcing an emergency landing in Chinese territory. On Chinese television tonight, they are saying one of their fighter jets has crashed into the ocean after the incident.

The American aircraft may not look like much, but this four-engine propeller plane called the EP-3 Aries, would be an intelligence gold mine for China if that government refuses to give it back to the US.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.Org): It's jam-packed with some of the most sensitive intelligence collection gadgets that the American intelligence community has.

McWETHY: Flying out of Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan, the plane involved in last night's incident was working its way along the coast of China near the island of Hainan. Its mission: gather radar frequencies and radio traffic from China's air defense, naval and missile installations.

After the incident, the EP-3 made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. The American pilot radioed that all 24 men and women on board were safe, but they had been ordered by the Chinese to shut down the aircraft. That was the last communication.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the incident was entirely the responsibility of the US plane because it veered unexpectedly. American officials say that is nonsense. Admiral Dennis Blair, Pacific commander, said the responsibility lies with the fast-moving Chinese jets.

Admiral DENNIS BLAIR (Pacific Commander): Under international air space rules, the faster, more maneuverable aircraft has the obligation to stay out of the--out of the way of the slower aircraft. Our aircraft fly routinely straight and level. It's pretty obvious who bumped into whom.

McWETHY: Admiral Blair said the Chinese also have an obligation to let the US government talk to the flight crew. As yet that has not happened. He said the Chinese must also stay off the aircraft. No word yet on what has happened on that score. Carole:

SIMPSON: John, this is--looks like a very sticky incident. What happens next?

McWETHY: The United States is sending a team of diplomats to Hainan Island. They hope to talk to the flight crew tomorrow. That is their hope, and the word from all levels of the US government is the US must be allowed to have the flight crew back immediately and the aircraft.

SIMPSON: Thank you very much, ABC's national security correspondent John McWethy.

All of this comes at a time of growing tensions between the US and China. ABC's Josh Gerstein is at the White House.

JOSH GERSTEIN reporting:

Returning from Camp David this afternoon, President Bush avoided reporters' questions about the plane collision. The incident is just the latest strain in relations between the US and China.

Ms. CATHERINE DALPING (Former State Department Official): This couldn't be worse. We have a new administration which hasn't fully shown its hand on policy toward China and the Taiwan Straits.

GERSTEIN: The Chinese are worried about possible sales of US warships to Taiwan. They're also nervous about American plans for a missile defense system that could blunt China's nuclear deterrent. Another challenge: China's human rights record. The detention on spy charges of American academics in China has led to frosty exchanges between US and Chinese officials.

Mr. COLIN POWELL (Secretary of State): I'm waiting for an answer from the Chinese government better than the answer we've received so far.

GERSTEIN: Experts say Chinese hard-liners jockeying for political power may try to provoke public outrage over the latest incident.

Mr. JAMES LILLEY (Former United States Ambassador, People's Republic of China): The Chinese are in a very good position. They've got the crew, they've got the plane. They can make their position and keep these people until they get some sign of contrition from us.

GERSTEIN: One senator says today's airborne altercation could worsen an already difficult relationship.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This could have some serious repercussions, but I think quick action is required on both sides to repair this damage.

GERSTEIN: One step the US could take to defuse the situation, delaying a decision on new arms sales to Taiwan. That decision was supposed to take place later this month. Putting it off could keep relations with the Chinese from deteriorating. Josh Gerstein, ABC News, the White House.

Copyright 2001