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The USS Higgins (pictured above) is one of three Navy destroyers in the vicinity of China's Hainan island .
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Spy Plane Collision Is Latest in 50 Years of Sino-US Clashes

The US navy's 7th Fleet and Pacific Command, which operated the EP- 3 spy plane involved in yesterday's crash, have been head to head with China's military ever since Mao Tse-tung drove Chiang Kai-shek and the defeated Nationalists into exile in Taiwan in 1949.

China squarely blames America for preventing the rapid conquest of Taiwan. A year after Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China, the Korean War broke out and the 7th Fleet was despatched to the Taiwan Strait to "contain" Red China.

The US Navy was at the heart of the crisis in 1958 when China's remorseless shelling of the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy (now Kinmen) and Matsu threatened to start a new Pacific war.

The two sides confronted each other again in 1996 when President Clinton despatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to patrol just off Taiwan in a show of support for the island's first democratic presidential elections.

The fleet's arrival was prompted by months of menacing Chinese missile tests and military exercises.

The tests were backed up by frenzied Communist denunciations of President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan who in June 1995 had been allowed to visit America. China's sabre-rattling was intended as a warning to Taiwan's voters not to re-elect him.

The arrival of the US fleet soothed the atmosphere of growing alarm and was followed by a landslide victory for Mr Lee.

The most recent showdown between Washington and Beijing was over the Balkans.

Yesterday's mid-air clash threatens to see Sino-US ties at their lowest ebb since May 1999, when the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade left three Chinese journalists dead.

China never accepted America's explanation that the embassy bombing was an accident.

Furious students and citizens, whipped up by the state media, staged days of government-sponsored protests, which saw mobs stone the US and British embassies in Beijing and burn down the US consul- general's residence in Chengdu. Last night's statement blaming the spy plane for the clash echoed the rhetoric after Belgrade bombing, when China's expressions of emotion mingled with claims for compensation.

Shortly after expressing concern for the missing pilot, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing noted: "China reserves its right to further negotiate with the US side on the losses resulting from the incident."

(C) 2001 The Daily Telegraph London. via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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