The 1954 Hainan Incident: How Chinese fighter pilots caused another international incident, and how Chinese diplomats resolved it

April 12, 2001
China Business Intelligence


 April 12, 2001

By John J. Tkacik


Washington, April 12, 2001: Now that the Washington and Beijing have successfully passed the crisis point of this latest "Hainan Incident", I am reminded of another, eerily similar incident in July 1954. There are lessons from history about "keeping an even strain" that might have helped both Beijing and Washington deal more effectively with the crisis. In the end, decision-makers in Washington seem to have learned these lessons better than their counterparts in Beijing.

It was early morning on July 23, 1954, high over the South China Sea. The sun illuminated the deep blue waters 9,000 feet below. About an hour out of Hong Kong en route to Bangkok, a Cathay Pacific DC-4 airliner carrying 17 passengers (including 6 Americans) was droning steadily southward across the sky. The DC-4 was 30 miles south of China's Hainan Island – almost 60 miles due south of the now-famous Lingshui Airbase, when it was intercepted. Two cream-colored low-wing piston-engined fighter aircraft approached the airliner from the rear. Without warning, the fighters opened fire on the DC-4, its tracer bullets ripping through the cowlings on both engines sending shrapnel into the pilots' instrument panel.

The pilot and co-pilot took evasive action, swooping thousands of feet toward the ocean, but the fighters followed, blasting away with their machine guns but apparently missing. The pilot radioed "Mayday" and gave his position at 7:45 am but had no time for small talk. In a feat of extraordinary skill, the pilot ditched the plane in the sea, skimming into the waves at 160 miles an hour. It seems surprising now, but 1950s technology enabled an amphibious aircraft out of Hong Kong to locate and rescue 10 survivors within hours. Three Americans were among the dead.

For a day, there was no news coverage and while British Government tried to keep it low-keyed. On July 24, the Her Majesty's Embassy presented a note of protest to the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing. The note deplored the "wanton attack on a British civil aircraft," and held the "People's Government of the People's Republic of China responsible for the tragic loss." The note also reserved the right to "claim full compensation."

Meanwhile, Washington was not interested putting a low-profile on the affair. At 11:49 am on July 24, Secretary of State Dulles phoned President Eisenhower at his farm in Gettysburg to say he had just told the British Ambassador that the story was going to break and the British "had better stop playing it down." President Eisenhower authorized the dispatch of two aircraft carriers into the area – 30 miles south of Hainan – to "protect further U.S. rescue and search operations." The State Department issued a statement that declared the U.S. Government took "the gravest view of this act of further barbarity."

Dulles wanted a tough response to the Chinese. The following day, July 25, Secretary of State Dulles phoned Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur W. Radford to see what instructions the carriers were under. Radford explained that U.S. aircraft would "defend themselves" but would not engage in "hot pursuit". Although, Dulles argued that "hot pursuit" was justified – even over Chinese territory, Radford said his orders came from Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and he would not change them. Dulles then called Wilson who said his orders came directly from the President. When Dulles got through to the President at Gettysburg, he found Eisenhower content to leave the matter with the British. Dulles recorded for the record that "the President said he did not want us to get too far in front, and questioned the desirability of our planes flying into Communist air in order to seek a fight." (On July 27, the Chinese Xinhua news agency issued its version of the encounter with U.S. planes. Xinhua charged the U.S. planes had invaded Chinese airspace above Hainan, had attacked and shot down two Chinese "patrol aircraft," and just for good measure, alleged that the Americans had strafed two Polish merchant ships and a Chinese escort vessel.)

Later that day, two U.S. search planes were attacked by two Chinese fighters. The U.S. aircraft returned the fire and shot down the two Chinese planes. Instructions to the Seventh Fleet carriers in the South China Sea were to "take all necessary measures to protect themselves," and this would include "pursuit into Chinese air if the initial hostile demonstration occurred in relation to our planes or ships on the high seas." With news of the latest fracas, Eisenhower told Dulles to send a "stiff note to [British Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony] Eden . . . saying we were going to have to take a very stiff line." Dulles agreed he would make a public protest, and that Eisenhower "will make no statement at the moment."

There is nothing to indicate the Chinese were influenced by U.S. posturing. Chinese vice foreign minister Zhang Hanfu met with the British Ambassador in Peking [Beijing] on July 27 to respond to the British demarche. Zhang explained (in writing) that the Chinese Air Force had received a report that on the day in question that a Nationalist Chinese patrol aircraft from Taiwan was in the Hainan area and that "fighting took place." But Zhang added that upon receiving the British protest, the Chinese government "undertook an investigation through various channels, which revealed that the aircraft involved was actually a British-owned transport aircraft; "the occurrence of this unfortunate incident was indeed entirely accidental."

Zhang said the Central People's Government "expresses its regret at this accidental and unfortunate incident," and is taking "appropriate measures to deal with it. Moreover, Zhang said the Chinese Government "extends its sympathy, concern, and condolences to the dead and injured in this incident and to their relatives; it is willing to giver consideration to the payment of appropriate benefit and compensation for the loss of life and property damage involved."

On September 15, the British government presented a claim to Peking for 367,000 pounds sterling, which the Chinese government accepted as its total liability. Americans with claims were invited to submit them to the British government.

The incident, however, was a minor footnote to the history of the Cold War in Asia. On September 3, the Chinese communist forces in Fujian launched what was to turn into months of round-the-clock artillery barrages of Taiwan's defenses on Quemoy Island, and later invaded the Nationalists' garrison on the Dachen island group near Shanghai. The three-month 1954 Formosa Strait Crisis (as distinct from the more memorable Strait Crisis of 1958) culminated in the US-Taiwan "Mutual Defense Treaty" which formally linked Taiwan and the United States as military allies for another 25 years.

But as a history lesson, the 1954 "Hainan Incident" is evidence that a muscular, military response to the Chinese is effective so long as it is kept within limits. Shooting down two Chinese fighters in self-defense is one thing, but President Eisenhower was surely wise in ordering U.S. planes to avoid "hot pursuit" except in extremis. Nonetheless, these early aerial engagements between U.S. and Chinese aircraft did little to deter China from its moves against Quemoy two months later. he low-keyed British handling of the affair kept it from turning into a permanent irritant in Sino-British relations, and there is hope that the relatively low-keyed U.S. response to this latest incident will do the same.

On the other hand, a review of the 1954 incident should tell the Chinese that the undisciplined or inexperienced fighter pilots can cause lasting damage to their country's international prestige (a lesson already well-internalized by American diplomats – like Admiral, now U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher who had to deal with the aftermath of a Marine pilot's tragic hot-dogging through the Italian Alps). The most effective remedy is to admit fault and offer compensation – as the Chinese did in the 1954 event and as Americans did in the May 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

Above all, the events of 1954 should caution everyone about dangers of bald-faced prevarication about events that can be documented. Henceforth in this present incident, Chinese and Americans would do well to come clean about the real cause of the mid-air collision between the Chinese Jian-8 II jet fighter and the EP-3. Ultimately, China must return the EP-3, and if the Jian-8 II proves to have caused the accident, it is China, not the United States which must pay compensation.

John Tkacik is a retired foreign service officer with over twenty-five years of experience in the China field. In 1979, he was the first U.S. Consul in Beijing since the departure of O. Edmund Clubb in 1950.


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