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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
China protects vital interests
Chinese Air Force jet fighters at a military base in Haikou on Hainan island
Hainan is a centre for China's military modernisation
By the BBC's Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus

The crisis involved a complex mix of international diplomacy and domestic politics, but at root driven by vital strategic interests on both sides.

An important Chinese naval headquarters is situated just to the north of Hainan Island, where the US aircraft put down.

Apart from routine signals intelligence, this area is also a testing ground for new Chinese submarines.

Protestors demonstrating against the Nato attack on China's Belgrade embassy in 1999
The Belgrade embassy strike has not been forgotten
Some American defence experts also believe that China is deploying new boats that are harder to detect, and might be capable of launching cruise missiles when submerged.

That would be a significant step forward for the Chinese Navy and one which has an important bearing on the operations of US carrier battle groups in the region.

Nobody doubts that the mid-air collision was an accident, but Beijing is seeking to use it to make a significant strategic point of its own.

It wants to show that it can act to protect its vital interests - to underline, as it sees it, that the Americans are operating in China's backyard and that Washington cannot simply do as it wishes there and escape all the consequences of its actions.

Belgrade legacy

One has to go back to May 1999 and the night US aircraft bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade to see the genesis of China's position.

Nato and the Americans apologised for what they insisted was a terrible mistake, but many people in China still question why the building was hit.

For the Chinese, Nato's Kosovo war demonstrated the extraordinary technical superiority of the US military.

But in the view of many Chinese strategic planners, it also showed that Washington would do anything necessary to pursue its interests - a view reinforced by subsequent US policy towards Iraq and elsewhere.

China has tried to draw the military lessons of the Yugoslav conflict and to apply them to its own strategic situation, planning a significant modernisation of its air and naval forces.

Its response to the spy plane crisis also underscores Beijing's efforts to demonstrate that the United States - while it may be a superpower - cannot act just as it pleases in areas that China believes affect its vital strategic interests.


Key stories:

Analysis

Spy plane row

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06 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
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