WASHINGTON – China may not like it, but there are probably plenty more U.S. surveillance planes in its future.
"That really is a given," Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday, asserting that America has a right to do surveillance.
"The Chinese want these flights to go away, but they know that's not going to happen," said Matthew Aid, a Washington-based intelligence historian.
In an agreement that freed the crew of a crippled EP-3E surveillance plane that collided with a Chinese interceptor over the South China Sea, the Bush administration acknowledged Wednesday that China would bring up its long-standing objection to such flights near its coastline when the two countries meet April 18 to discuss the incident.
But that doesn't mean the United States plans to do anything about it, given China's strategic importance in Asia and the value America places on knowing what Beijing and its military are up to.
"We can't afford to be blind in an area where we have friends and interests," said Asian security expert Helmut Sonnenfeldt of Brookings Institution.
Analysts said that even if the United States decides to alter where the flights go, cut down on the number of or hold off on some for a while, it likely will be just that — for a while.
"We've made it clear that we are prepared to sit down and discuss ... the incident that occurred here and see if there aren't things that can be done to avoid such collisions in the future," Cheney told WAMU-FM.
"But with respect to the right of the United States to continue to operate our aircraft in international airspace ... that is not a subject that we would want to concede on."
Other U.S. officials — civilian and military — suggested that the administration won't even entertain negotiations on the subject.
"It's critically important that we maintain that for our own national security," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla.
"We are in compliance with international law," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We're flying over international waters. This is a practice the United States and other countries have followed."
Indeed, the United States collects electronic and communications signals from virtually every corner of the globe. It has operations based on ships and land as well as in planes. And it's not alone, because dozens of countries send planes to get information from one another.
The Navy's EP-3E, held on China's Hainan island since April 1, was collecting and processing signals from radar and other electronic communications such as telephone calls, computer or fax telecommunications and satellite transmissions.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin said early in the diplomatic standoff over the accident that China was exasperated by American surveillance flights near its coast.
"American planes come to the edge of our country and they don't say `Excuse me,"' Jiang said. "This sort of conduct is not acceptable in any country."
He demanded that they be stopped. American officials insisted they had the right to continue.
The Pentagon has declined to say whether it ordered a halt to flights temporarily while diplomatic efforts were under way to free the crew.
But Aid, the historian, said there have been temporary halts in surveillance in the past.
After the Soviet Union shot down a surveillance plane in 1950, President Truman imposed a moratorium of a few months on such flights, he said. During that time, Navy ships continued spying from off the coast and British planes helped with aerial reconnaissance, Aid said.
"We asked the British to pick up the slack," Aid said. "What we can't do sometimes our allies will."
After North Korea shot down a U.S. spy plane in 1969, President Nixon ordered a temporary end to such flights. When they resumed a few weeks later they were ordered to stay farther away from the communist country's coast, declassified records show.
China has known about the U.S. surveillance flights for decades. And it complained nearly a year ago about how close they were coming to the coast.
"China will talk, they will protest, but it doesn't change the fact that this has been going on for quite some time and will continue for the foreseeable future," Aid said.