The United States resumed its first surveillance flight off the eastern coast of China since a damaged US Navy EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan Island last month.
An unescorted U.S. Air Force RC-135 took off from Kadena Air Force base in Japan on May 7 flew along the Chinese coast, staying in "international airspace," a source told ABCNEWS.
The Pentagon on Monday confirmed that the surveillance flight returned to the Kadena base without any contact with the Chinese. In the past, Chinese fighter jets have attempted to intercept US surveillance flights over the South China Sea.
U.S. officials said the purpose of the flight was to establish a new baseline of intelligence on China. The RC-135 flies higher and faster than the EP-3 Aries II.
Monday's surveillance flight was the first since U.S. reconnaissance missions were suspended after a tense diplomatic standoff instigated by an April 1 midair collision between a U.S. Navy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The 24-member crew of the Navy spy plane, who made an emergency and unallowed landing on Hainan Island, were held by the Chinese for 11 days.
The badly crippled EP-3 Aries II is still on the Hainan island, while the Pentagon assesses ways to get it back on U.S. soil. The $80 million aircraft contained some of the U.S. military's most sophisticated equipment as well as highly sensitive information when it collided with the Chinese fighter jet.
The United States is expected to discuss the return at a proposed meeting of a bilateral U.S.-China maritime safety commission. No date has been agreed for that meeting.
Although U.S. officials say the crew managed to destroy significant amounts of equipment and information, many experts believe the Chinese have had access to important military information inside the EP-3 Aries II.
The United States has demanded the return of the spy plane though it is still unclear if the badly damaged aircraft can fly off the air base in Hainan or if it would have to be dismantled and shipped back to the United States.
While the United States has maintained that it will continue what it calls "routine reconnaissance missions" on the Chinese military, many experts believed the Pentagon would not resume surveillance flights as long as the EP-3 was on Hainan Island.
While the flight took place over international waters, Beijing is expected to express displeasure over the flight, thereby upping the round of rhetoric against the United States.
(China Daily 05/08/2001)