The Washington Post

BEIJING When 24 U.S. servicemen and women made an emergency landing on a Chinese airfield Sunday, they presented China”s military with a golden opportunity to advance the goal that dominates its strategy: reuniting Taiwan with the mainland.

First, possession of the U.S. Navy EP-3E has provided access to some of the advanced technology that symbolizes U.S. military dominance in Asia. Second, for some in the Chinese hierarchy, the standoff over the detained U.S. crew has been a chance to test how far the United States will go to defend its role in the Taiwan Strait.

China”s strenuous military modernization, made possible by a growing economy, is aimed at enabling Beijing to threaten Taiwan if necessary to carry out the Communist leadership”s pledge of reuniting the island with the mainland. In addition, the Chinese effort is designed to create as many obstacles as possible for the United States should it want to defend Taiwan in hostilities, something military experts call area denial.

The modernization, according to Ken Allen, a former assistant air attache in Beijing, seeks in particular to “push China”s defensive perimeter out farther.” This was one of the main lessons of the Persian Gulf and Kosovo wars for Chinese military planners, who saw how U.S. forces did not need to fly just above a target or send ground troops to destroy it.

To accomplish this, China”s military must become a sea and air power, and not just a continental one, for the first time in Chinese history. The air force, navy and army missile forces have made rapid progress in their attempt to do so, although the program has encountered many problems and ground forces still dominate the 2.4 million-strong People”s Liberation Army.

When the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region following large-scale Chinese military exercises near Taiwan in 1996, the Chinese were unable to locate the carriers. Since then, Western military officers said, Chinese spotting techniques have significantly improved. Over the past year, Chinese fighters have regularly flown into the middle of the Taiwan Strait they often patrol the halfway point.

“There is a growing sense of proficiency, of the right to be out there and doing this,” Allen said.

This point was dramatically illustrated in an unusual report by a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong in June 1999. Although two years old, the report has hints of what happened over the South China Sea on Sunday morning. The newspaper, Wen Wei Po, interviewed several Chinese pilots flying missions to intercept what the report intimated were U.S. surveillance planes.

“With consummate flying skill and the wisdom of being bold but cautious, the Chinese aircraft flew in formation within 30 meters (100 feet) from the foreign plane,” one section read. Pilot “Zhang Junsheng saw the pilot of the foreign plane signal with his left hand in a yellow glove that they were too close to his plane.”

After videotaping and snapping pictures, Zhang told his co-pilot to fly even closer. “When the wings of the two planes were about to touch, he promptly pushed the camera”s shutter,” the paper said.

The article did not appear to be an exaggeration. U.S. defense officials say Chinese pilots routinely come perilously close to U.S. military planes, prompting Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, to complain that they were putting Chinese and American lives at risk.

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