Hainan collision anniversary stokes South China Sea tension

Chinese netizens praise dead pilot’s heroism and condemn US interference
By RFA Staff
2024.04.02
Hainan collision anniversary stokes South China Sea tension A Chinese man looks at a magazine cover featuring Chinese pilot Wang Wei, who was killed when his J-8 fighter collided with a U.S. EP-3 spy plane, at a newsstand in Beijing, April 17, 2001.
(Reuters)

On the anniversary of the death of Wang Wei – the Chinese pilot whose fighter jet collided with an American aircraft over Hainan island in 2001 – China’s internet sphere is filled with messages praising his heroism as well as condemning the United States.

Wang’s Shenyang J-8II, together with another Chinese fighter, were sent from Hainan’s Lingshui airfield to intercept a U.S. Navy’s EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft operating near the island in the South China Sea in the morning on April 1, 2001.

Chinese and U.S. sides provided different accounts of events leading to the incident that took place at around 9:15 a.m. local time, when Wang’s airplane collided with the EP-3 mid-air, causing him to eject into the sea. His body was never recovered.

Wang was posthumously awarded the Medal of First-Class Hero and Model, as well as the honorary title of “Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters” of China.

The incident resulted in a serious political dispute between Beijing and Washington then, and now, as the situation in the South China Sea remains precarious, analysts warn of the risks of further confrontation and conflict.

Fueling nationalism

The “heroic sacrifice” of Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei surfaces again this year with bold messages on Chinese public channels against the U.S. “aggressors.”

On WeChat, a post by Housha from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province – Wang Wei’s birthplace – was read 34,400 times and received 2,700 “thumb-ups”.

“It has been 23 years since Wang Wei left this world but the South China Sea is still rough and the waves are not quiet,” Housha wrote. “The intention of the U.S. to invade China’s territorial waters and airspace continues but it is now putting the Philippines in the firing line.”

“I have come to a profound understanding that the U.S. is not China’s 'imaginary enemy', it is undoubtedly THE enemy.”

Housha added that “happiness and peace need to be defended with life and blood.”

Another post by ‘Chilling’ on the platform X, formerly Twitter, which is inaccessible inside China and therefore likely aimed at a foreign audience, reads: “He [Wang Wei] represents the blood and strength of the Chinese people and can help people see the true face of the United States!”

Wang Wei memorial.jpeg
The memorial of Wang Wei in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. A commemoration ceremony was held for him on April 1, 2021. (Xinhua)

Ian Chong, a political analyst from the National University of Singapore, said that the “nationalist reaction” may stem from the latest events in the South China Sea, where Beijing has been embroiled in escalating tensions with the Philippines, a treaty ally of the U.S.

Another analyst, Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said that the 2001 Hainan incident is being used by Beijing as fuel “to feed the tensions”.

“China's Communist Party always modified the facts and truth to fit its interests,” Schuster told Radio Free Asia. 

“They will repeat that “hero” narrative as required to maintain the fiction that the PRC is the victim of aggression, not the perpetrator,” the analyst said, referring to China by its official name the People’s Republic of China .  

“I see that propaganda based on the incident as a tool to sustain Beijing's effort to sustain public support and justify its actions,” he added.

De-escalating the risks

Since 2001, there have been several occasions when China blamed the U.S. for risking “another Hainan incident.” 

In August 2014, a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft at about 135 miles (217 kilometers) east of Hainan Island.

The Chinese think tank South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said in a report that the U.S. military’s aerial close-in reconnaissance over the South China Sea increased in both frequency and intensity, with around 1,000 sorties in 2023 alone.

The U.S. maintains that its ships and airplanes “will fly and sail anywhere international law allows” under the “freedom of navigation” principle of law of the sea.

The risk of conflict between the two superpowers may become even greater, as “the conditions that allowed for de-escalation may be less available today than in 2001,” according to NUS’s Ian Chong.

“There remain big questions about the People’s Liberation Army's command and control and crisis de-escalation efforts,” Chong said.

The Chinese military has embarked on a major modernization masterplan and the Pentagon’s 2023 Report concluded that “the PRC turned to the PLA as an increasingly capable instrument of statecraft.”

The U.S. National Security Strategy in 2022 also stated that the PRC “is the only competitor to the United States with the intent and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order.”

In 2001, to end the dispute over Hainan incident and to secure freedom for the EP-3’s 24 crew members detained by China, the U.S. sent a letter to Beijing saying that it was “very sorry” about the pilot’s death and about the U.S. plane’s landing on Hainan without China’s permission.

“The incident does tell us there are risks in China's behavior and some will argue we should back off,” said Schuster, formerly from the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

“That's very similar to the 1930s when U.S. and European ‘experts’ urged the same approach to Hitler’s aggression in the 30s. It did not deter him, it emboldened him,” argued the retired navy captain turned analyst.

The 2001 incident “does remind us of the risks but it does not justify retreat to avoid them,” he said, adding that would risk something more serious and destructive.

Edited by Elaine Chan and Taejun Kang

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