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The four-engine US Navy aircraft which made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island on April 1 was on a routine ELINT mission, so called for what it collected—electronic intelligence. A crew of four actually flew the plane; the other twenty Americans on board, all Navy personnel but on a mission ultimately sponsored by the National Security Agency, were there to find, identify, collect, and record a range of electronic emissions from routine military chatter on radios to the characteristic signature of Chinese defensive radars.
The NSA, with the help of the Navy and Air Force, has been doing this since the late 1940s, sometimes aggressively, and the target countries detest it. In the early days the Soviet Union shot down as many as forty American aircraft on ELINT missions, some of them deep inside Soviet airspace, killing perhaps two hundred American civilians and military men. The most recent incident, however, occurred over international waters in the South China Sea; reckless shadowing of the slow-moving, propeller-driven American EP-3E by a Chinese fighter aircraft appears to have caused a midair collision. Accident it may have been, but the message was the same as that of the Soviet shootdowns of yesteryear—back off.
But backing off is the last thing the United States is likely to do. Collecting intelligence is what great powers have learned to do instead of going to war, and the risk of war between the United States and China, not great, and at first glance crazy and unthinkable, has nevertheless been growing year by year since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The big irritant is Taiwan, over which China seeks to reassert political control. American administrations haven’t ruled this out, so long as it isn’t achieved by military force. But the specter of military force is very much part of the strategy used by China, which has been threatening Taiwan in symbolic ways, such as test-firing missiles near the island, and the United States has been demonstrating support in symbolic ways, such as agreeing to major new weapons sales, but not, so far, the sophisticated Aegis defense system.
What happened to the Navy’s EP-3E has its symbolic side, too—the Americans were flying it up and down the Chinese coast partly to show we can’t be pushed around, and the Chinese were shadowing it aggressively to show we’d better be ready for a lot of pushing. The civilian observer watching the drama unfold on CNN probably feels much like an adult watching toddlers squabble in a sandbox—what are they fighting about? Why can’t they just get along?
But the making of symbolic gestures is not why the United States spends uncountable billions on ELINT flights and all the rest of the intelligence-collecting activities of the NSA. So what did the Chinese find so threatening and how did the Americans plan to use what they learned? These questions are addressed, with numerous examples and a wealth of …
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