US and China risking a military mishap without ‘mature communications’, America’s former top East Asian diplomat warns


“We must be extra careful not to have a mishap like EP-3 in the current environment,” Susan Thornton, the former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the South China Morning Post in an interview.

“I’m not confident that we have adequate communication mechanisms in place to prevent escalation.”

Thornton, who retired from the State Department in July, was referring to the 2001 collision of a US Navy EP-3E Aries II spy plane, on a routine surveillance mission, with a Chinese PLA Navy J-8 interceptor fighter jet over the South China Sea near the Chinese coast.

Susan Thornton said the US and China need to improve their communication to manage tensions. Photo: Xinhua
A bitter diplomatic crisis arose over the incident, which left a Chinese pilot missing; his body was never found and he was declared dead. Though heavily damaged, the American plane managed to make an unauthorised emergency landing at Lingshui Air Base – a PLA Navy facility on Hainan Island.

Thornton – attempting to raise awareness of the dangers of inadequate US communication with China – said the Trump administration “should be communicating more about things we know the other side doesn’t like, because there are a long list of differences on both sides”.

But she also said China needs to be “honest and more transparent” about its intentions to deploy weapons at its outposts in the South China Sea to prevent a military incident from occurring.

It’s good to talk, but US-China tensions are far from over
“If China doesn’t make some kind of effort to be more forthcoming about what it’s doing, what its plans are, how these islands will not be used to threaten its neighbours, and how these islands will not be used to keep the US from having access to this region, it’s just going to continue to be a festering problem,” the former top East Asian diplomat said.

She urged the countries to establish “communications and rules of behaviour mechanisms that could serve to diminish the possibility of a mishap, which is the immediate problem we face in the South China Sea”.

Thornton’s warning comes ahead of an expected meeting in Washington next week between US and Chinese defence ministers who will attempt to address their respective nations’ differences as a war of words between Washington and Beijing ratchets up over issues in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait.

While it claims sovereignty over the South China Sea, China is in talks with surrounding countries over a code of conduct for the disputed maritime region.

It has long been opposed to US military aircraft and warships sailing near or overflying the disputed islands.