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That time U.S. servicemen were detained overseas by a hostile power, and America said sorry twice

American crewmen aboard the reconnaissance aircraft detained in China stand at attention April 12, 2001, at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. (Ben Margot/AP)

In Thursday's Republican debate, a series of presidential candidates made political hay over an episode earlier in the week in which 10 American sailors patrolling in the Persian Gulf had been briefly detained and then released by Iranian authorities.

"Tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships," growled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

"If I am elected president, no serviceman or service woman will be forced to be on their knees," blustered Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who was referring to images released by Iranian state media of the American crew with their hands on their heads after being seized by the Iranian navy.

The incident was prompted after the two riverine command boats carrying the sailors from Kuwait to Bahrain drifted inadvertently into Iranian waters. Most sober Iran watchers saw reasons for cautious optimism in what followed — the situation, for example, was resolved far more smoothly and swiftly than a similar episode in 2007 involving British marines.

But amid the election cycle, there was little time for nuance, and Republican critics of the Obama administration continue to harp on what transpired as evidence of the White House's fecklessness and acquiescence to foreign adversaries.

Their rhetoric would sound a bit odd if transposed to an earlier moment when U.S. military personnel were detained following an altercation

On April 1, 2001, a U.S. EP-3 surveillance and reconnaissance plan carrying 24 servicemen collided with a Chinese fighter jet operating off the coast of China's Hainan island. The Chinese plane crashed into the sea, killing its pilot. The damaged American aircraft made an emergency landing in Hainan island and its crew, while unscathed, were summarily detained.

What followed was a tense 11-day standoff. Bush administration officials — for whom this was the first big foreign policy test — initially struggled to gain access to the detained crew and fended off angry Chinese demands for a formal apology.

Both sides blamed the other for the altercation, which occurred in international airspace. Analysts of China's expansionist tactics in the South China Sea point to the incident as an important precedent for Beijing's subsequent acts of provocation, which include Chinese jets carrying out similarly risky intercepts and flybys.

At the time, it should be stressed, relations between Beijing and Washington were anything but rosy. Here's The Washington Post's John Pomfret, writing in April 2001:

Western diplomats said they also were worried about a potential popular backlash in China. In May 1999, hundreds of thousands of Chinese attacked American diplomatic missions here after U.S. warplanes bombed China's embassy in Belgrade during the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia. Three Chinese were killed. Security in Beijing's diplomatic neighborhoods was beefed up tonight.
The collision comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations. The Bush administration is considering a major arms sale to Taiwan, which China has vociferously opposed. China in recent months has arrested two U.S.-based scholars, one of whom is an American citizen, and accused the other, Gao Zhan, of espionage. A senior Chinese military officer defected to the United States in December, and there are tensions over the Bush administration's commitment to creating a national missile defense system. China fears the system could nullify its small nuclear deterrent.

The 24 American personnel were released eventually after the U.S. ambassador in Beijing delivered a letter of "regret." While avoiding a formal apology, the U.S. also made certain concessions, including agreeing to a meeting with Chinese officials to discuss U.S. reconnaissance missions near China. Here's more from a congressional report about the incident:

The letter expressed “sincere regret” over the missing PLA pilot and plane, and that the United States is “very sorry” for the loss of the pilot, Wang Wei. Also, while noting that the U.S. aircraft had to make an emergency landing for the safety of the crew, the letter expressed that the United States is “very sorry” the EP-3 entered China’s airspace without verbal clearance. The letter included the expectation that the crew would be allowed to leave China “as soon as possible.”

China framed it as the "letter of two sorries," one for the loss of its fighter pilot and the other for the supposed U.S. violation of Chinese airspace when its plane landed in Hainan. Some Chinese state media played up both admissions as signs of a formal apology, despite U.S. insistence that it was not.

Still, it led to the freeing of the 24 American personnel, who were ultimately debriefed at an air force base in Hawaii. The plane itself was kept longer in China, where it was stripped of sensitive material.

The Chinese, moreover, billed the Pentagon $34,000 for the upkeep of the American crew members during their  detention. The U.S. paid up, but rebuffed further Chinese demands for compensation.

The episode, despite being far more tense and dragging out far longer than this week's imbroglio with Iran, was not that politically polarizing. The most outspoken language at the time came from a ranking Republican congressman Tom DeLay, who inveighed against "communist piracy" and the "deluded dreams of a despotic regime."

Opinion polls later that April showed a small bump in President George W. Bush's approval ratings.

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