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Plane Collision Injects New Tension In Sino-U.S. Relations

BEIJING (April 2) -- The collision between a US Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet has added tension to Sino-US relations at a time when Beijing is trying to figure out the emerging China policy of the new US administration, Asian-based analysts said Monday.

"This event will definitely undermine relations, but the damage has to be limited because the two sides can't drive the relationship to hell," said an Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Qinghua University here.

Yan was commenting on the mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US Navy EP-3 spy plane on Sunday over the South China Sea that resulted in the US plane making an emergency landing at a military base in China's southern Hainan Island. The Chinese jet crashed and the pilot is missing.

Beijing would probably agree to release the 24 airmen aboard the plane, Yan said, but the fate of the aircraft was uncertain and China would be free to confiscate the plane and its sophisticated electronic warfare technology as it saw fit.

"The US does not have the right to say what is to be done with the plane," he said. "The plane is on Chinese territory and China has the right to do whatever it wants on its own territory."

China has held the United States responsible for the accident over international waters which left a pilot of one of its F-8 fighters missing, while Washington said the fault was on the Chinese side.

The Chinese foreign ministry also accused the US plane of failing to go through proper channels to get the permission to land on Chinese territory. The United States has said the plane was forced to make an emergency landing.

Yan, a regular foreign policy consultant to the Chinese government, said the administration of US President George W. Bush was stepping up suspicions over China's military modernization and increasing military flights approaching Chinese air space.

"The US suspicions over China's military are increasing," Yan said. "The US says that these are routine flights, but what is becoming routine is that the US is entering into Chinese territory and interfering in China's sovereignty."

Yan said Chinese fighter jets were being increasingly scrambled to "chase" American planes out of Chinese air space.

China has not officially addressed the issue of what its planes were doing so close to the US plane, while Admiral Dennis C. Blair, commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Command, denied the US plane ever entered Chinese air space.

Blair further complained that in recent months Chinese aircraft were becoming increasingly "unsafe" toward US planes in the region and "not intercepting in a professional manner."

Yan said the Bush decision to view China as a "strategic competitor" and not a "strategic partner" like former president Bill Clinton, has played a role in events leading up to the incident and would also play a role in the resolution of the issue.

"If you want the Chinese military to be a strategic competitor then China will be a strategic competitor, if you want the Chinese military to be a strategic partner, then China's military will be a strategic partner," he said.

Jean Pierre Cabestan at the Hong Kong-based French Center for Research on Contempory China said China's concern over the emerging Bush policy was leading Beijing to become increasingly daring in its foreign policy toward Washington.

"They are obviously trying to test the limits of the relationship with the new US administration," Cabestan told AFP.

Last month's visit to Washington by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen was designed to test the new administration's policy on Taiwan, while the recent arrests in China of US-based Chinese-American scholars Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin were testing the limits of Bush's human rights policy, he said.

"Now they are testing the US Navy and Air Force in the South China Sea," he said.

"Will Bush be more cautious toward China? The Chinese are testing the limits, they are pushing the envelope so to speak," Cabestan said.

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