The year 2001 began with the inauguration of President George W. Bush who, like all presidents since Nixon, pledged a reset of America’s relations with the Chinese Communist regime.
His immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, who had criticized the first President Bush for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” after the Tiananmen Square massacre, went through his own turbulent first term with China. In the midst of it, Clinton’s leading Asia diplomat responded to a direct question from the Chinese military on how Washington would react if China attacked Taiwan. His answer – “it would depend on the circumstances” – became the mantra for the doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” through subsequent administrations.
After Bush II took office, however, Beijing presented him with an early test of his own resolve in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. On April 1, 2001, a Chinese jet fighter pilot aggressively tracked and harassed a lumbering US reconnaissance aircraft, clipping the EP-3’s wing, destroying the Chinese plane and killing the pilot, and forcing the US plane to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Beijing extracted an apology from Washington, detained the crew for over a week, and held the plane for months before allowing the US military to retrieve it, dismantled and crated.