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How One Pilot’s Death in Collision With a US Spy Plane Created the Modern Chinese Military

The Hainain Island Incident made China switch from an army-focused coastal defence posture to a naval and air-focused offshore strategy

Few people know the name Wang Wei. But this Chinese pilot’s death in 2001 was the driving force behind the modernization of China’s military.

The 33-year-old was killed 18 years ago when his fighter jet collided with a US spy plane mid-air near Hainan Island on the southern tip of China.

While there was no official commemoration of the anniversary of Wang’s death on Monday, analysts said the significance of the incident for the People’s Liberation Army could not be underestimated.

On April 1, 2001, a US EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft was challenged by two PLA J-8II fighter jets, one of which was piloted by Wang.

Wang’s jet hit the US plane during the third of a series of close passes, crashing into the sea.

The US side said its plane was on autopilot and Wang flew too close; the Chinese said that the American plane had veered into it.

Either way, Wang was killed because his parachute did not open in time as he tried to escape the aircraft, according to two independent military sources.

“His death was an accident but it set off many changes,” said Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming. “What happened 18 years ago spurred China to step up the modernization of its military, especially aircraft development for the air force and navy.”

According to Zhou, the military’s top brass became determined to upgrade navy aircraft after the incident, replacing its fighter jets and improving features such as emergency exit systems.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the Hainan incident pushed the PLA to develop a strategy focused more on offshore defense, rather than the onshore strategy advocated by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

“China was not well versed in giving ‘professional and rational’ responses when the collision happened in 2001 because it followed this more inward-looking defense doctrine,” Li said.

“The 2001 crash taught China a lesson – that a strong country cannot rely on a vibrant economy alone but also needs a strong military,” Li said.

Zhou said that the mid-air collision also helped to elevate the position of the Chinese navy, driving the leadership to allocate more to naval resources.

“Previously, the PLA was more focused on its army and the Chinese navy played a secondary role,” he said.

The Hainan Island incident sparked an 11-day diplomatic stand-off between Beijing and Washington, with each side blaming the other. All 24 American crew members were held by China after their damaged aircraft made an emergency landing on the island.

The incident was settled with what became known as the “letter of the two sorries,” in which the US did not apologize for any of its actions but said it was “very sorry” for the death of the pilot and “very sorry” that its aircraft entered Chinese airspace and landed without clearance.

The ambiguity of the letter allowed both sides to back down.

Li said that if a similar collision happened today, “the consequences could be very different because the PLA now has more advanced aircraft, and it has set up a comprehensive crisis management system to deal with all kinds of provocations by the Americans.”

The US does not recognize the Chinese claim over the Paracel Islands and therefore denied the plane was in Chinese airspace

Since the incident, and amid growing rivalry between China and the US, there have been more military stand-offs between the two sides. In 2017, two Chinese Su-30 fighter jets came within just 150 feet of an American plane, according to the US Pacific Air Forces.

And in October 2018 a Chinese destroyer and a US Navy warship came within 45 yards of colliding with each other in the South China Sea.

But Song Zhongping, a military commentator with Phoenix TV, believes a repeat of the Hainan incident was less likely now. “Having had these more frequent encounters, the PLA is better prepared and has become more confident in dealing with the Americans professionally and safely,” Song said.

“However, the US will not stop its so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, because the PLA – which they paid little attention to 18 years ago – now poses a real threat to them.”

Source: Inkstone News