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Reconnaissance Flights and Sino-American Relations

Policy Developments and a Hainan Island Incident, 1969-1970

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 41

Published – April 9, 2001

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact:
William Burr 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

More Archive Resources on Nuclear History:

Nuclear History Project Page

The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-1964

Missile Defense Thrity Years Ago: Deja Vu All Over Again?

The Chinese Nuclear Weapons Program:  Problems of Intelligence Collection and Analysis, 1964-1972

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Deployments in Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima

United States Secretly Deployed Nuclear Bombs In 27 Countries and Territories During the Cold War

Taiwanese "Nuclear Intentions", 1966-1976

U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Okinawa

Israel and the Bomb

The U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS)

India and Pakistan: On the Nuclear Threshold


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Washington, D.C., April 9, 2001 –The ongoing Chinese-American controversy over the EP-3 aircraft that landed on Hainan Island on 31 March 2001 is the latest moment in a long and complex history of U.S. aerial reconnaissance activity over and near Chinese territory. During the Cold War days of the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA flew U-2 and other aircraft over Chinese territory, with many of the flights piloted by Taiwanese airmen.1  Other military agencies, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force in particular, working in conjunction with the National Security Agency, have operated aircraft that flew near Chinese territory to collect radar and other electronic signals, to intercept communications, and to sweep up aerial debris from nuclear tests.  The history of these activities is murky; for example, the CIA has yet to acknowledge fully the Taiwanese role in the U-2 program while the radar intelligence (radint), signals intelligence (sigint), and communications intelligence (comint) programs are highly secret involving "sensitive compartmentalized information [SCI]."2

Declassified archival material from the first year of the Nixon administration sheds light on Cold War policy on reconnaissance flights near Chinese territory.  They confirm how risky the policy was: before April 1969, U.S. reconnaissance aircraft could fly as close as twenty miles from the Chinese coast.  Moreover, the documents show U.S. policymakers have been reluctant to acknowledge reconnaissance flight activity, much less offer apologies when incidents occur.  Ironically, an incident that elicited internal State Department policy review was the alighting of a U.S. pilotless reconnaissance aircraft on Hainan Island in February 1970; despite contemporary PRC claims, apparently the aircraft was not shot down (see document five).  To retain U.S. freedom of action to fly reconnaissance missions, State Department official Harry Thayer recommended that the United States refrain from any apologies in the event that the Chinese made any formal complaints.   Now that China seeks an apology for the latest incident, it remains to be seen whether a similar U.S. posture is possible when the balance of forces in East Asia is considerably less advantageous to Washington than it was in 1970.



Document 1: Memorandum from Winthrop G. Brown, Bureau of East Asian Affairs to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson, "Basing of U.S. Strip Alert Planes at Tainan Airfield on Taiwan," 29 May 1969, Top Secret

Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Subject-Numeric Records, 1967-1969 (hereinafter SN 67-69, with file cite), Def 1 Chinat

This document discloses policy decisions on Chinese-area reconnaissance flights during the early Nixon administration.  The month before, on 15 April, the North Koreans shot down a U.S. EC-121 aircraft operating in the Sea of Japan, with the entire crew lost.  In the wake of that incident, President Nixon temporarily halted reconnaissance flights in the region.  After a few weeks, however, Nixon ordered the flights to resume although the U.S. Joint Reconnaissance Center (JRC), probably with White House approval, limited the closest point of approach (CPA) for future flights near China: instead of twenty miles (!) as before, aircraft would be authorized to fly no closer than fifty miles (note: the EP-3 was flying 62 miles off Hainan's coast).   Moreover, the Pentagon sought special security measures for these flights: a U.S. fighter jet unit would be on alert on runways in Taiwan ("strip alert") in the event of an incident.  As Brown's commentary indicates, the Pentagon's request made State Department China hands nervous because U.S. combat aircraft had not regularly operated from Taiwan since the 1958 U.S.-China crisis over the Taiwan Strait.  Further, the new policy "risks a clash between U.S. and Chinese Communist aircraft."  Not wanting the reconnaissance aircraft to fly unprotected, Johnson accepted Brown's "reluctant" advice to authorize the deployment at Tainan airfield on Taiwan, which was also the site of the U.S.'s nuclear weapons storage facility on the island.


Document 2: Memorandum from Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Marshall Green to Under Secretary of State Elliot Richardson, "Next Steps in China Policy," 6 October 1969, Secret

Source: National Archives, SN 67-69, Pol Chicom-US

During the fall of 1969, after years of tensions, possibilities for improvement of Sino-American relations were substantially greater and senior officials on both sides were signaling their interest in a new relationship.  To convey a new U.S. attitude, Marshall Green and other senior officials considered changes in the U.S. military posture, such as redeploying U.S. forces from Taiwan (see page 5 of this document).  One such move was redeployment of the strip alert aircraft from Taiwan, a move that the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command had already endorsed.  In this connection, Green noted that U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were then flying about seventy-five miles from the Chinese coast.3  Moreover, he observed that the "Chinese never threaten US reconnaissance aircraft in the Taiwan Strait area even when they fly closer" than seventy-five miles.  Apparently, the close trailing of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft by Chinese jets was not then a standard practice. When the Pentagon finally de-alerted the fighter jet unit and moved it remains unclear; it would have been before 1974, when U.S. F-4s were withdrawn along with a small U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.


Document 3: Letter from Under Secretary for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson to Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard, 9 January 1970, Secret

Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records Subject-Numeric Records, 1970-1973 (hereinafter SN 70-73, with file cite), Pol Chicom-US

In December 1969, Beijing and Washington agreed to resume formal discussions between their ambassadors in Warsaw.4  Talks were scheduled for 20 January 1970 but the State Department wanted to make sure that nothing derailed them.  Thus, Alexis Johnson wrote David Packard to ask that the military take "special precautious" to avoid naval or aerial activities that could trigger an "incident" off the Chinese coast.


Document 4: Letter from David Packard to U. Alexis Johnson, 20 January 1970, Secret

Source: National Archives, SN 70-73, Pol Chicom-US

On the day that the first round of Warsaw talks began, Packard assured Johnson that the Pentagon had reviewed "current operating rules" to keep U.S. forces away from "incident prone" areas near China.  Admiral John McCain was the Command-in-Chief, Pacific Command, the U.S. Senator's father.


Document 5: Memorandum from Harry Thayer, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of Asian Communist Affairs, to Morton Abramovitz, Office of Under Secretary of State, "Warsaw Meeting: Shootdown of U.S. Drone," 19 February 1970, Secret

Source: National Archives, SN 70-73, Pol Chicom-US

Whatever precautions may have been taken, an accident occurred on the afternoon of 10 February 1970, when a U.S. reconnaissance drone (pilotless) aircraft, strayed over PRC airspace on Hainan Island. Since this account was prepared last week, more information on this incident  suggests that the PRC did not shoot down the drone.  The drone was a Ryan 147SK--generally known as the SK-5--which failed as it was heading toward North Vietnam, not the PRC.  Operated by the U.S. Navy, the SK-5 was used for assessing pre-and-post-strike targets in North Vietnam; that is, to evaluate targets before or after they were bombed.  According to a 1982 account prepared by veterans of the program, on the 10 February mission, the SK-5's beacon failed and its U.S. Navy operators, flying in an E-2 Hawkeye, could not fly it properly.  The drone ran out of fuel and after its operators deployed its parachute; it alighted on Hainan Island.  Although a Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) naval air defense unit claimed to have shot down the drone, apparently it only fell into their hands.5  The Chinese press publicized the incident and festivities occurred on Hainan Island; on 16 February, the air defense unit rejoice its victory over "American imperialism," beginning the event with the song "The East is Red" and concluding with "Sailing the Sea Depends on the Helmsman."6

Celebrations notwithstanding, the Chinese did not complain about the incident, perhaps because they knew they had not shot the SK-5 down.  Nine days later State Department officials did not know what had happened, but they speculated, as Harry Thayer put it, that Beijing was not going to "make a major issue of the incident" when another round of Warsaw talks began in a few days.  In the event that the Chinese complained, Thayer recommended that the U.S. hold to its traditional stance of not acknowledging reconnaissance flights.  Moreover, he urged that U.S. Ambassador to Poland Walter Stoessel make no apologies because that would set the wrong precedent: apologies could lead to explanations and Chinese demands that the United States forswear future flights.  As it turned out, the question of an apology was irrelevant because the Chinese did not mention the incident during the Warsaw discussions.



1.  See Chris Pocock, Dragon Lady: The History of the U-2 Spyplane (Shreswbury, UK: Airlife, 1989).

2.  Thus, the CIA has excised most of the section on overflights over China  when it "declassified" its internal history of the U-2, The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974 (Central Intelligence Agency, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1998).  Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach wrote this study.

3.  Whether that indicated a change in policy from the fifty miles mentioned in document one is unclear.

4.  Talks between the U.S. and PRC ambassadors to Poland began during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958 and continued intermittenly through early 1970.  Until more formal diplomatic relations were in place, the Warsaw talks were a way for two unfriendly governments to maintain communications.

5.  See William Wagner, Lightning Bugs and Other Reconnaissance Drones: The Can-Do Story of Ryan's Unmmanned 'Spy Plane' (Fallbrooke, CA: Armed Forces Journal International: Aero International, 1982), 162-163.  I thank Robert S. Hopkins, III, for bringing this account to my attention.

6.  For translated Chinese coverage, see U.S. Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, Daily Report: Communist China, 12 and 17 February 1970.


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