Spy Plane FAQ

What are the laws that govern who controls the airspace in which a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided?

Most nations, including China, are signatories to international laws first established in 1944 that govern civil aviation. These agreements, administered by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, state that each country has complete control of the airspace above its territory, including its territorial waters, which extend 12 miles beyond its coastline. (Many countries, including the United States assert that they control economic zones–for example for oil drilling and fishing–of 200 miles.) However, these aviation conventions specifically exclude aircraft engaged in military service.

So what governs military aircraft?
Well, the United States has an air defense identification zone that extends 200 miles off our coast. We require that any foreign military aircraft flying within that zone must report in or risk retaliatory action. In any case, the American government says that Sunday’s collision occurred in international airspace.

What were the military personnel on the U.S. plane supposed to do if the Chinese boarded and ordered them off?

Resist. U.S. military personnel are not supposed to surrender of their own free will. They also would be expected to follow the rules governing the destruction of the data, and possibly some equipment, aboard the plane.

The Pentagon is also saying that the plane has “sovereign immune status” that precludes the Chinese from searching or detaining it without U.S. permission.

Good try! says Alfred Rubin, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. While the plane is U.S. property, because it is a military aircraft that landed on Chinese territory, the Chinese have overlapping jurisdiction, he says. He adds that if a Chinese military craft were to land in Alaska under similar circumstances, the Chinese would have to expect we would give it a thorough examination.

According to the Washington Post,the United States uses reconnaissance planes like the one just downed to monitor Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan. And this incident is also expected to play into the upcoming U.S. decision about selling new military technology to the Taiwanese. But isn’t Taiwan a part of China?

Ah, the paradox of U.S.-Taiwan relations! Until President Richard Nixon went to mainland China in 1972, the United States recognized Taiwan as the official Chinese government. After that visit, the United States acknowledged the mutually exclusive view of both the Taiwanese and the PRC that there should be only one China (the two just disagreed on whose government was legitimate). This was resolved in the Communists’ favor on Jan. 1, 1979, when President Jimmy Carter gave official recognition to the mainland and said that Taiwan was part of that China. However, Congress then passed legislation that has given a legal basis for the United States’ continuing, if unofficial, recognition of Taiwan. The legislation created a form of diplomatic relations, made certain commercial agreements, and also established the United States’ interest in making military equipment available for Taiwan’s self-defense. Taiwan, which has 22 million people, now has a democratically elected government.

Next questions?

Explainer thanks Alfred Rubin of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Denis Chagnon of the International Civil Aviation Organization, and Dennis Mandsager of the Naval War College.