In the Shadow of the Emperors


The American EP-3E ARIES II was flying a milk run, a routine mission along China’s southeastern coastline that would likely see its crew back at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa by dinnertime. It was a bright Sunday morning, some 105 kilometers off the coast of Hainan Island, in the South China Sea. The crew would log the time at 08:30, April 2, 2001.The reconnaissance team was already familiar with the path that the spy plane would take as it scouted for the deployment of Chinese naval vessels staking their territory around rock outcroppings hotly contested by China and its neighbors for their mineral wealth and strategic importance; Chinese submarines based in Hainan Island that might come up for a breather; and missile batteries at the ready should Taiwan’s rogue president Chen Shui-bian declare independence from the Motherland.
Two sleek Chinese J-8II interceptor fighter jets came up behind the lumbering propeller-driven craft. The fighters were like mosquitoes to the hippopotamus-like EP-3Es. The spy plane was awkward, slowmoving, pregnant with electronic-detection equipment, and bristling with antennae quivering with anticipation of discovery. The J-8IIs’ job was to escort the U.S. surveillance craft from the border of international waters—a broad band of neutrality 200 nautical miles wide—away from the Chinese ...

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