This Day in International Law: April 1
By: Iosif Sorokin
On April 1, 2001, a US reconnaissance aircraft carrying 24 crew members collided with a Chinese fighter jet above the South China Sea. The area where the collision took place is highly contested as it falls within China’s exclusive economic zone under the Law of the Sea Convention. China claims that this precludes other nations from conducting military operations within this area, but this has been contested by the US, which has performed numerous freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Following the mid-air collision the Chinese pilot was able to eject from the cockpit, but his body was never found and he was declared dead. The collision caused the US aircraft to dive 14,000 feet and nearly invert before its pilot regained control and completed an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. The 24 member crew was held on a military installation on Hainan while US diplomats negotiated their release. As part of the negotiations, the US ambassador to China delivered a letter to the Chinese foreign minister stating that the US was “very sorry” for the death of the Chinese pilot and “very sorry” for entering China’s airspace and landing without verbal clearance. Although this lead to further disagreement over whether this amounted to an apology or merely an “expression of regret or sorrow,” the crew was ultimately freed after 10 days and the aircraft was returned several months later.