When a U.S. spyplane collided with a Chinese fighter and was forced down in Hainan on April Fool’s Day in 2001, I wrote a commentary on TIME.com inviting American readers to imagine the incident through Chinese eyes, in order to appreciate the depth of anger the incident caused in Beijing.
“Imagine a Chinese plane flying a surveillance mission off the Florida coast colliding with an Air Force F-16 sent on an aggressive monitoring mission,” I wrote. “The U.S. fighter goes down and the pilot is lost; the Chinese plane is forced to land on U.S. soil. The incident occurs at a moment when China is about to supply a package of sophisticated weapons to Cuba (possibly including the very same model spy plane now in U.S. hands); is planning to deploy a missile shield that would neutralize the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and has signaled that curbing U.S. regional ambitions is to become the organizing principle of its military doctrine. Imagine further that the incident comes two years after Chinese bombs had destroyed (albeit inadvertently) a U.S. embassy in Europe… It’s unlikely Americans would feel in a particularly forgiving mood, either.”
Apparently, the editors at China’s official Xinhua agency were sufficiently impressed with the column that they created their own version of it, writing three days later that : “Time Magazine columnist Tony Karon wrote an article on the same web site pointing out that the US approach in demanding that China return the reconnaissance aircraft and its crew doesn’t make sense. He said that the US government should put itself in China’s position and imagine that, if it had been a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft engaging in spying and reconnaissance off the coast of Florida, and a US pilot had been lost after a US aircraft had taken to the air to intercept it, and furthermore that China was also in the process of selling a series of advanced weapons to Cuba, a US adversary, and was preparing to set up a missile defence system targeted at the United States, how would the Americans handle it? He says that ‘I don’t believe the Americans would feel that it is forgivable either.’ ”
Which doesn’t mean quite the same thing as saying “wouldn’t be in such a forgiving mood.” But hey, at least they read the piece.
The incident, you may remember, had a happy ending, as neither Beijing nor Washington had any interest in escalating the standoff.