SCMP Monday, April 16, 2001

Spy thrillers evoke wonder, but are lethal in real life

Now that the dust has settled over Hainan Island, we can sit back and appreciate some thoroughly inflammatory use of language.
It is a general rule of newspaper life that "spy", like "sex", should be included in headlines whenever the opportunity arises. It transports the story immediately to the realm of international intrigue, in the tradition of novelists John Buchan and Graham Greene, The Great Game, The Riddle of the Sands and "please try to bring some of this back in one piece, 007".
Even if this were not the case, "electronic intelligence gathering" is not a practical phrase for a headline. Readers will not warm to "EP-3E Aries II" when "spy plane" is available, and why should they? The trouble is that "spying" can cover a multitude of things, some of which are illegal and some - at least if they are done to us - rather disreputable.
The operation which ended so unhappily was at the respectable end of the spectrum. If you use radio or radar equipment, then this will usually involve sending out a signal. This floats about the ether and can be picked up by anyone who has the right equipment.
For many years, there was a British-government installation just outside Chai Wan featuring a formidable collection of aerials. Most of them pointed towards the mainland.
I do not recall the Chinese Government ever complaining about this, and indeed it probably did them no harm.
Most of this sort of listening work is still done from a respectful distance. And there is not much the transmitting country can do about it. If you have a shouting match with your wife in the kitchen, there is no point in complaining that the neighbours should not be hearing it.
Sending a specially equipped plane to float past the country concerned is a bit more active than merely overhearing. It is the moral equivalent, perhaps, of switching off the television and gluing your ear to the wall. But it is still perfectly legal.
I was not impressed, incidentally, by the suggestion that the EP-3E is a "Cold War relic". It looks old-fashioned because the requirements of the job are that you fly slowly. It is occasionally suggested, for this reason, that airships should be used instead of conventional planes. Either way, this is not the sort of equipment with which you can ram a fighter plane. It would be like trying to ram a mosquito with a cart horse.
Also off the wall was the suggestion that "the people of Hainan" objected to having spy planes flying past them.
The flying is done over the horizon, behind the clouds and far away. If you were a Hainan person, you would have to work in air-traffic control to know it was going on. Still, this sort of thing can be irritating for the country concerned, even if it has been going on for a long time, and the Americans have to put up with it too.
Faced with an eavesdropper droning along your international border, there are some things you can do. One is to bombard the "spy" with a stream of gibberish, in the hope that the interesting stuff will get lost in the traffic. Another is simply to switch off any item you do not wish to have investigated. The beautiful metaphor offered in last week's papers, which had the plane running its cat's whiskers over military bases, was misleading. There are no whiskers. If nothing is transmitted, nothing is received.
Sending up a jet fighter or two is not effective. It might actually add to the information gathered by the eavesdropper. But it is attractive because of another unrelated problem of military life. The selector of fighter pilots is looking for daring and restless spirits, the sort of men who get a buzz from hazards voluntarily undergone. The problem with such men is to keep them awake and interested during peace time, especially if your air force has frugal limits on flying practice.
Intercepting other people's military aircraft in international airspace is meaningful, legal and has a whiff of combat about it. It provides a welcome moment of excitement for both sides.
No doubt such interceptions commonly include displays of flying finesse and daring from the pilots concerned. I do not suppose that Wang Wei - the Chinese pilot believed to have been killed in the collision with the United States plane - is the first pilot to cash in his proverbial chips in these circumstances, or that he will be the last.
Young men who are encouraged to play with powerful machinery will do these things. They forget that although the clouds are a pleasant playground, we do not belong up there. As the old saying has it, there are old pilots and bold pilots. But there are no old bold pilots.
Tim Hamlett ( ) is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at Baptist University.