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Burden of Proof

U.S. Plane, Crew Held in China Following Collision

Aired April 2, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, Yugoslavia's former president is now a prisoner, facing charges at home, and he could face charges from the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Plus, one of the U.S. military's most sophisticated spy planes is stranded in China, along with its 24 crew members.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADMIRAL DENNIS C. BLAIR, U.S PACIFIC COMMAND: Chinese fighters, over the past couple of months, have become more aggressive, to the point that we felt that they were endangering the safety of Chinese and American aircraft under international airspace rules. The faster, more maneuverable aircraft has the obligation to stay out of the way of the slower aircraft.

It's pretty obvious as to who bumped into whom.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH PRUEHER, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: Our aircrew is immune to People's Republic of China jurisdiction and should be permitted contact with U.S. personnel as they arrive. The PRC does not have a sound legal basis for detaining our people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: We are at a very important and delicate point right now in our relationship with the People's Republic of China, and how this is handled will go a long way as to the future of that relationship.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Three U.S. diplomats have arrived in China, seeking answers about a military crew. They were onboard a U.S. Navy surveillance plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese plane crashed into the South China Sea, while the U.S. plane landed on Hainan Island, in China. Each country is blaming the other for the crash.

And now, U.S. officials say Beijing is reluctant to release information about the plane, the crew, or their location. The crew's last contact was made immediately after they landed on a Chinese military base.

This contentious situation may add to or further strain existing tensions between the United States and Beijing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our embassy in Beijing has been told by the Chinese government that all 24 crew members are safe. Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Joining us today from New York is Richard Dicker (ph), director of the International Justice Program for Human Rights Watch.

From New Haven, Connecticut, Ruth Wedgwood, an international law professor.

And here in Washington are Lori Aufdemorte (ph); Jim Feinerman, professor of Asian legal studies; and Abi Maxwell (ph).

In the back row are Bob Hammond (ph) and Katie Binz (ph).

Jim, let me go right to you. It seems to me, from reading about this and trying to figure out the facts, that this was a game of chicken being played by a Chinese jet and an American plane that is a propeller-driven plane.

JIM FEINERMAN, INTERNATIONAL LAW PROFESSOR: That's right, and as military spokesman have indicated, over the last several hours, this has been escalating over time. In the last several months, as U.S.- China relations have reached this sort of delicate point, they've been getting closer and closer. They've been sort of seeing who would blink first in this game.

COSSACK: What's the law about this? The United States' plane was over a particular part of the ocean the Chinese claim jurisdiction over. It's also admitted that the United States' plane was a plane that does intelligence eavesdropping. I'm sure that's something that the Chinese aren't too happy about. What's the law about this? What's the law about how close planes can fly and whether or not the United States has the right to be there?

FEINERMAN: Well, there are territorial limits that every country enjoys, and limits over airspaces that you can enter that are part of national territory, but in this case, I think the United States is pretty much in the clear in arguing that this is international ocean space that every country is allowed access to, that the sea lanes would be open to shipping traffic, and likewise, that the airspace should be open to overflight.

Now, it gets close to Chinese territory, and it's complicated by the fact that the Chinese make very extensive -- and most people would consider outrageous -- territorial claims to most of the South China Sea, which would make that territorial waters of China, which most other countries, including those that border China and that sea, would reject.

COSSACK: Ruth, what's usual there about that particular area? Is that an area that most international air traffic would stay away from, because they would believe that they were flying over Chinese territory, or is this something that traditionally has been open?

RUTH WEDGWOOD, FORMER U.S. SUPREME COURT CLERK: No, not at all. The 12-mile limit was firmly put in place by the Law of the Sea Convention, and China has not quarreled with that 12-mile limit. The have rather extravagant claims about archipelago states: They claim the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. Mostly, they want to try to enclose as much of the South China Sea as they can, but as Jim was saying, Vietnam and the Philippines do not yield to their claims, and neither do we.

COSSACK: Is this an argument mainly based over the fact that the United States plane was a plane that was an intelligence gathering plane, and therefore, the Chinese are angry about that? Is there commercial air traffic that guess through there?

WEDGWOOD: Legally, the fact that it's an intelligence plane doesn't make any difference whatsoever, and commercial aircraft are entitled to go there as well. I think any country becomes annoyed when international airspace is used for surveillance, but it's perfectly legal. The plane that landed on Hainan Island is the equivalent of a battleship that comes into port in distress, and the Chinese owe it duties as a vessel in distress, whose distress they caused.

COSSACK: Ruth, is this an argument that really is taking place between the Chinese military internally and, perhaps, between the diplomats of China?

WEDGWOOD: It's hard to say. It was rather traditional in the Cold War for the Soviets to dog the tails of, for example, the sergeant who would go on patrol in East Berlin. So I'm not sure it really shows a rift. It shows the current, unpleasant state of relations as the Chinese want to both buck themselves up and annoy us.

COSSACK: Jim, what's going to happen? Let me ask you to look into the future here. Is this the kind of thing that escalates or is this the kind of thing that sort of boils immediately and then, after a while, goes back to normal?

FEINERMAN: It's hard to say.

COSSACK: Historically, at least.

FEINERMAN: As Ruth noted, the problem may be that the Chinese are boxing themselves in, feeling that's necessary for a number of domestic and international political reasons.

COSSACK: Jim, let me just interrupt you for a second.

We have to go back to Atlanta, to Natalie Allen -- Natalie, please.

(INTERRUPTED BY LIVE EVENT)

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