US and China Talk Planes, Fly Zones, Fair Play ; Meeting in Beijing Today to Discuss Whose Laws Govern the Right to Fly Where

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For the first time since the US aircrew detained in China returned to American shores, officials from the two countries will meet here today to discuss what happened and how to proceed.

Three items are on China's agenda: the cause of the crash, the fate of US EP-3E plane now at a Hainan airbase, and - perhaps the issue China feels most strongly about - addressing the "double standard" for US military flights near its coast.

Under US laws governing its own Air Defense Identification Zone, military planes from other nations entering a 200-mile radius of US shores must first identify themselves. Otherwise, they are intercepted and "escorted."

China is now claiming a similar standard, and questioning whether US military planes can fly, as they have been doing for decades, in what China claims as its 200-mile "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) off China's coast. "The US should stop these flights.... They constitute a threat to China's security," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue yesterday.

Whether the two sides will actually conduct a serious open-ended questioning of what actually happened on April 1, with the idea of establishing a new basis for discussions, is in question. China's rhetoric regarding a "bullying" America has increased in recent days, turning the pilot Wang Wei, whose jet collided with the EP- 3E, into a something of an "anti-American" hero.

Yet China has signaled to US officials that it wants a "straightforward" discussion, which might be something other than a shouting match about blame.

More than dealing with just this incident, at issue is China's desire to more fully control all aspects of security in its region - with the US Pacific Fleet, which oversees security from Korea to Australia, as the potentially "hostile" power. (The Liberation Army Daily newspaper yesterday described the US, in fact, as "a powerful enemy.") The US-implied defense of Taiwan, as mandated by US law, is a major thorn in China's paw.

Many international legal experts say that under "customary law," China does not have a strong case on its 200-mile airspace point. China would have had to protest vigorously and publicly on many occasions prior to this incident to suddenly make such a claim. Most of the laws relating to these EEZs relate to whether or not foreign vessels are causing harm to the economic interests of the sea and the marine life in the zone. China's positions have extended this law to airspace.

The already controversial incident has raised a potential double standard - since according to US laws "any foreign planes" coming within 200 miles of the US must "obey the procedures the US has prescribed," as explained in a long published tract by Chinese legal expert Li Qin.

The US laws are in place to stop potential supersonic flights of craft that could carry lethal weapons. US air defense interceptor jets scramble to check out various planes that come close to its zone, or that dance in and out of it.

Such flights are quite unlike a slow-moving turboprop aircraft like the EP-3E, whose presence is flagged far ahead of time by radar. …