But the situation involving 24 American servicemen held on China's Hainan Island isn't about diplomatic "pleases," "thank yous" and when to use the salad fork. What China hopes to do by demanding an apology is humiliate the United States and possibly force us to stop surveillance flights in the region.
Ironically, because of its demands, China is proving itself the lesser nation and should apologize to us. Here's why:
1) China's claim that our plane bumped into their fighter jet on April 1 defies the basic laws of physics. The EP-3 Aries II is a four-engine turboprop plane that's been described as a "flying pig" by one military official because of its bulky design and flying speed of about 345 mph. In contrast, the Chinese F-8 jets are designed after the Soviet MiG-21, which can reach speeds of 1,355 mph -- more than twice the speed of sound. It's almost impossible for an EP-3 to come near a fighter jet on purpose, let alone bump one.
2) China claims that the plane's crew didn't give proper notice when it landed on the island and is thus subject to search and detention. But the crew followed emergency procedures to the letter: After the collision, it put out a "mayday" distress signal on a radio frequency that all nations monitor for emergencies. It then followed its Chinese "escort" -- another jet -- to the island and landed right behind it on the runway. To hear the Chinese tell it, you'd think David Copperfield made the U.S. plane materialize out of nowhere, right on a Chinese runway.
3) Both Chinese and U.S. officials agree the collision happened about 62 miles from Hainan Island, well beyond the limits of Chinese air space. But China insists the U.S. plane was in its territory because the U.S. crew was flying in what it considers disputed waters of the South China Sea. What many people don't know is that China claims large parts of the China Sea -- a claim challenged by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
4) Many people are calling the EP-3 a "spy" plane when that's not the case. Maybe that's because "spy" sounds cooler. But "spying" is really espionage -- conducting secret operations in other countries. The EP-3 was on a routine surveillance mission in international airspace, which is done by every major country -- including China -- on a daily basis. So technically, no rules were broken.
China's stubborn insistence on extorting a U.S. apology is strange indeed. It's probably little more than a stalling tactic designed to give China more time to interrogate the crew and examine the plane's surveillance equipment, giving it a chance to counter or re-engineer U.S. technology. We shouldn't be in the business of rewarding this behavior.
What else does China hope to achieve by insisting on an apology? Like so much else about this mess, no one really knows for sure. Just like no one really knows exactly how well the plane's crew is being treated in China's "protective custody" -- or when our servicemen and women are coming home. Or how this will affect President Bush's planned trip to Beijing this October. Or how this may affect the already delicate situation between communist China and democratic Taiwan.
We do know this: The United States is not at fault here. It has nothing to apologize for. To do so would make us sorry indeed in the eyes of many at home and abroad. The United States apologize to an international bully? I don't think so.
Dexter Ingram, a database editor in The Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy, served as a naval flight officer.
Distributed Nationally by the Associated Press