At least one China expert believes Beijing may be using 24 U.S. crewmen — from a Navy EP-3 “Orion” surveillance plane it now holds — as “hostages” to force Washington to extradite a former People’s Liberation Army senior colonel back to the mainland.
Yang Chih-heng, deputy director of the Strategic and International Studies under the private Taiwan Research Institute, a think tank, said the timing of an incident involving a Chinese F-8 fighter, which “bumped” the U.S. plane during a spy mission Saturday night, was “unusual.”
“Don’t you feel the timing of the event was unusual, to intercept a surveillance plane on a routine mission?” Yang said, according to Agence France Presse on Monday.
Yang said he believes Beijing may use the 24 crewmen aboard the plane – one Air Force, one Marine, and 22 Navy personnel, including three women – as “hostages” to push for the extradition of PLA Senior Colonel Xu Junping, who defected to the U.S. in December while visiting New York City with a Chinese military delegation.
Reports have said Xu has provided invaluable military intelligence information to the Pentagon about Chinese military capabilities, the PLA and the entire mainland’s military infrastructure.
The reports, while unconfirmed thus far, say, “Xu had brought with him confidential information which allowed …the Bush administration to have a better picture of the PLA,” said Agence France Presse.
“Beijing may use the plane’s … crew as hostages in seeking the return of Xu,” Yang said. “The possibility must not be ruled out.”
So far, U.S. officials have been unable to speak with any crewmembers. China has blocked U.S. diplomats, who have traveled to Hainan Island where the plane is being held, from gaining access to them.
The EP-3 was forced to declare a “mayday” and land at a Chinese air base on the Island Saturday night after being “bumped” in midair by the Chinese fighter, the Pentagon and the White House have said.
A pair of F-8s had been sent airborne to “shadow,” or intercept, the American Navy plane.
Shenyang Chinese F-8 “Finback” fighter of the type sent to shadow the U.S. Navy’s EP-3 Orion on Saturday.
China has said its fighter crashed after the incident, and that the pilot has yet to be recovered. Beijing has also blamed the incident on the U.S. plane.
Yang said the incident could be an isolated case, but added, “Beijing may send a clear warning signal to Washington, through the aggressive attitude in intercepting the routine U.S. patrol mission.”
“They may try to tell Washington the PLA is now armed with capability to counter against any attack from the U.S.,” he added.
Other reports in the U.S. on Monday tend to substantiate Yang’s observations.
The Washington Times said senior U.S. intelligence and military officials have noted an increase in “aggressiveness” among China’s forces in recent months, in response to otherwise routine surveillance and naval missions performed by U.S. forces.
Saturday’s aerial incident “occurred a week after another confrontation between a Chinese warship and a U.S. Navy surveillance ship in the Yellow Sea described by Navy officials as a ‘threatening’ Chinese action against the ship in international waters,” the Times said.
In addition, Pentagon officials told the paper that China has stepped up intercepts of EP-3 Orions, using F-8s sometimes armed with air-to-air missiles.
“They’ve been flying within 20 feet of the EP-3s,” one official told the Times.
Meanwhile, Fox News reported that ordinary Chinese, in street interviews, were outraged by the incident, and most vehemently criticized the U.S.
Fox News quoted one young Chinese man, who was dressed in a Western-style business suit, as saying the Chinese government should take a hard-line approach against the U.S.
“We can’t not take action. If they want to fight a war, we’ll give them a war,” the man said.
Yang said the incident and the added strain in U.S.-Sino relations could make it more difficult for the Bush administration to decide to sell Taiwan the advanced weapons it has asked for, including Aegis-equipped destroyers.
“Washington may not sell the advanced weaponry Taipei desires in the coming arms talks,” scheduled for mid-April, “but it may do so next year,” Yang said.