2001 Hainan Island Incident, Explained: Now more than two decades later, it is impossible to think about the year 2001 without the tragic events of 9/11 coming to mind. That remains a singular moment that largely changed the course of world events, beginning the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and setting U.S. military policy for years to come.
In fact, it was only last year that the United States’ longest war, the conflict in Afghanistan, which began as a result of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., finally came to an end. While some continue to question whether the U.S. pull-out was the correct course of action, it could be decades before we know the answer.
Yet, 2001 was a defining year for other reasons – it could be argued too that a now largely forgotten and overshadowed event may have emboldened China, and laid the foundation for what is now becoming Cold War 2.0.
No April Fool’s Joke
George W. Bush, who won a contentious race for the White House, wasn’t even 100 days into his presidency when he faced a significant crisis on April 1, 2001. A United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft collided with a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet in mid-air, sparking a major diplomatic crisis.
The EP-3E was operating over the disputed waters of the South China Sea about 70 miles (110km) from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) island province of Hainan, as part of a scheduled six-hour mission. With just an hour left in its flight, the EP-3E was intercepted by two J-8 fighters. According to the official U.S. military reports, the PLAN fighter veered aggressively close on its third pass, resulting in a mid-air collision that killed the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, and crippled the U.S. Navy aircraft, which was forced to make an emergency landing at Lingshui airfield in Hainan. Beijing detained the two dozen American crew members and maintained control of the damaged aircraft.
Before landing, the crew had jettisoned documents out of an emergency hatch and even destroyed some signals-collecting equipment to keep it from falling into Chinese hands. However, it has been reported that the crew hadn’t actually been trained in how to get rid of the equipment, so they resorted to pouring coffee on the electronics.
American and Chinese military officials dispute the exact cause, but the American pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, has maintained his plane was on auto-pilot – making it impossible for him to have made a jarring maneuver. According to the second Chinese pilot who served as wingman for the Wei, however, the American aircraft had made a sudden turn. What is important to note is that the flight data has never been released by the Chinese government, suggesting they have something to hide.
The U.S. crew was taken to a holding area and interrogated for 11 days. Fortunately, they faced no unruly treatment, and by some accounts, the crew and their Chinese guards even shared a few jokes. Finally, the crew was released and given a hero’s welcome at their base in Honolulu, Hawaii for several days of intense debriefing.
Osborn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” for his actions that saved the lives of the crew. Lt. Commander Wei was posthumously honored in China as a “Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters,” and his widow even received a personal letter of condolence from President George W. Bush.
That wasn’t actually the end of the story, however. Initially, a team of technicians from the United States was sent to Hainan to repair the plane. However, Beijing refused to allow the aircraft to be flown off Hainan Island, and instead, it was disassembled and flown back to the United States on July 3, 2001 via the Russian airline Polet in two Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo planes.
The United States eventually paid for the dismantling and shipping of the aircraft, as well as for the 11 days of food and lodging supplied by the Chinese government to the plane’s crew. The total amount was $34,567.89. Beijing had also demanded one million dollars for the loss of the J-8 and the pilot, but the U.S. declined and no further negotiations were held on the matter.
For a while, China stopped its aggressive monitoring and intercepts of U.S. aircraft, but Beijing may have played a “long game” while the United States was distracted by the aforementioned events of 9/11. Low-grade military clashes steadily continued, including a naval dispute in early 2009.
By 2014, China then made a bold move when it began to construct its artificial islands in the South China Sea, which are now fully militarized. Earlier this year, Beijing also claimed the entirety of the regional waters as sovereign territory.
Yet, it should also be remembered that the Chinese government sought to reduce some outrage at home. Even as Beijing’s leaders had fomented fierce nationalism, there were fears that demonstrations could get out of hand – as they had done after a U.S. warplane had mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two years earlier. While some in the PLA were eager – even more than eager – to fan the flames, cooler heads prevailed.
By the summer, the world largely moved on, and the media spent the summer focused on the disappearance of Chandra Ann Levy, an intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who was reported to have a relationship with the married Democratic Congressman from California Gary Condit. Her remains were found a year later, but the case is still unresolved.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the Hainan Island Incident was all but forgotten.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.