The Hainan Island Incident

On April 1, 2001, a mid-air collision between a United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals surveillance aircraft and a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet resulted in an international dispute between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) called the Hainan Island incident.

The EP-3 was operating about 70 miles (110 km) away from the PRC-controlled island of Hainan when it was intercepted by two J-8 fighters. A collision between the EP-3 and one of the J-8s caused the death of a PRC pilot, while the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan. The 24 crewmembers were detained and interrogated by the Chinese authorities until a letter of apology was issued by the United States Government. It was the first foreign policy crisis in the presidency of George W. Bush.

The crew of the EP-3 was released on April 11, 2001, and returned to their base at Whidbey Island via Honolulu, Hawaii, where they were subject to two days of intense debriefings, followed by a hero's welcome. The pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for "heroism and extraordinary achievement" in flight, while the J-8 pilot, Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, was posthumously honored in China as a "Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters". His widow received a personal letter of condolence from President George W. Bush.

U.S. Navy engineers said the EP-3 could be repaired in 8-12 months, but China refused to allow it to be flown off Hainan island. The disassembled aircraft was released on July 3, 2001, and was returned to the United States by the Russian company Polyot in an Antonov 124-100. It was eventually reassembled and returned to duty.

In addition to paying for the dismantling and shipping of the EP-3, the United States paid for the 11 days of food and lodging supplied by the Chinese government to the aircraft's crew, in the amount of $34,000. The Chinese had demanded one million dollars compensation from the U.S. for the lost J-8 and their pilot, but this was declined and no further negotiations were held. One Republican congressman, Tom DeLay, described the episode as "communist piracy" and Chinese demands for compensation as "the deluded daydreams of a despotic regime".

The incident took place ten weeks after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president and was his first foreign policy crisis. Both sides were criticized following the event; the Chinese for making a bluff which was called without any real concessions from the American side other than the "Letter of the two sorries", and the Americans first for being insensitive immediately after the event, and then later for issuing the letter rather than taking a harder line.