Author: Anastasia Kalloniati, ANU

Negative perceptions of international security and relations between global powers are steadily rising with mounting tensions between the United States (US) and China. In this fearful climate, we need to look deeper at crises that had the potential to be devastating to better tackle those that may arise in the future. The EP-3 crisis is a fascinating case that fits this description.

The events of the EP-3 crisis are still contested. On April 1, 2001, a 24-member US EP-3 reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet over the South China Sea (SCS). China argued that the EP-3 ‘suddenly veered’ into the F-8, causing the latter to lose control, killing the pilot, Wang Wei. The US objected, saying the EP-3 pilot would never endanger their entire crew by flying close to the F-8, whereas ‘reckless’ flying was characteristic of Wei. EP-3’s are also large and slow, and cannot outmanoeuvre a F-8. Despite this dispute of events, the crisis hardly seems cataclysmic. To understand what made it more dangerous we need to consider the context of the incident.

The US and China share a tumultuous history. US support for the nationalist Kuomintang during the Chinese Civil War ensured a frosty start to the states’ relations, which remained tense for decades thanks to Cold War politics. Chinese free-market reforms and economic interdependence between the two states have reduced tensions, but issues still erupt within the relationship periodically (and recently more so). One such challenge lies in SCS territorial disputes. China’s bold claim over the territory, which has a complicated historical justification, competes with those of numerous other states.

China’s assertion is a generous U-shaped line encompassing almost all the waters between China in the North and Malaysia in the South, and between Vietnam in the West and the Philippines in the East. Despite their purported neutrality in the issue, the US has routinely demonstrated a military presence in the region, particularly through surveillance flights. These flights were a regular occurrence in the months preceding the EP-3 crisis and were increasingly met with Chinese interceptions. With China’s fierce legal objections to American movements in the area a crisis seemed almost inevitable.

A plane collision between two states already challenging each other’s presence in the SCS could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. So why have so few people heard of the EP-3 crisis? The simple answer is that both states demonstrated efficient crisis management, meaning the event never received the broad media coverage that other global events gain.

Despite significant pressure to pursue hard-line policies, both states understood that continued cooperation was worth more than escalating tensions. This mutual understanding was a cornerstone of the EP-3 incident’s crisis management. In particular, the US ambassador to Beijing sent the Chinese government a ‘Letter of Two Sorries’, expressing how ‘very sorry’ the US was that the crash occurred and Wei lost his life. The letter did not accept blame for the crash but was still a significant concession for the US as apologies are generally only issued for that exact purpose.

Beijing initially rejected the letter, claiming it did not apologise sufficiently, but ultimately understood its significance and returned the EP-3 and its crew who had been detained by China. The letter also bridged cultural boundaries, with the US recognising the symbolic importance of an apology for China, a country steeped in values of hierarchy, collectivism and deference. The letter was a compromise for both parties and served as an efficient method of crisis management. In this way, we can learn from the EP-3 crisis that understanding cultural and international political norms is crucial to easing tensions.

In the months following the crisis, tensions between the US and China were also eased as another major event drew the states’ attentions elsewhere — the attack on the Twin Towers (9/11). The war on terrorism following the attack provided the US and China with a common cause for mutual aid, allowing the EP-3 crisis to recede into the background of international relations. While an event like 9/11 cannot be replicated or planned for when considering the management of future crises, it nevertheless demonstrates that states are able to waive their grievances when there are other important issues to be dealt with.

Despite effective crisis management, the EP-3 crisis did not occur without consequence. While the crisis lacked the media coverage of other internationally significant events, the attention it did receive still fuelled polarisation. Research has shown that media coverage of international crises is particularly biased when one’s own country is involved. In states like China, where the distinction between government and media is unclear, this occurs more frequently.

The immediate treatment of the EP-3 crisis in both US and Chinese media followed this pattern. Media tended to follow the perspective of the government, creating a stark difference in how the crisis was being framed to the public in the two states. US sources emphasised Wei’s recklessness and that the crisis occurred in international waters while Chinese sources focused on Wei’s family life and martyrdom alongside the illegality of US actions. The lesson we can take from this is to promote media diversity to ensure that crises are not escalated by public division.

In an increasingly tense global political climate, we will need to remember the EP-3 crisis. When states focus on cooperation and compromise, it is possible to come back from the brink. Even states with a tumultuous history like China and the US can resolve conflicts and crises. Remembering this will be crucial in the future as the two states and their allies come into more disagreement.

Anastasia Kalloniati is a third-year undergraduate student at the Australian National University studying a Bachelor of International Security Studies and a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE).