The Hainan Island incident was the April 1, 2001, collision between a United States Navy EP-3E signals reconnaissance aircraft and a People's Liberation Army Navy J-8II fighter jet that resulted in an international incident between the United States and China. The EP-3, assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) had been operating about 70 miles (110 km) away from the Chinese island of Hainan, when the craft was intercepted by two J-8II fighters. A collision resulted between the wing of the EP-3 and one of the J-8s, which caused the death of the J-8's pilot, Wang Wei, while the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan.
The international status of the incident's location is a source of controversy; the Chinese insist it is part of their "airspace" but per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which China is a signatory, it is international waters and thus international airspace. The dispute is also mired in controversy of the EP-3's earlier overflight of various South China Sea islands which are claimed by China.
At about 09:15 local time, toward the end of the EP-3's six hour mission, two Chinese J-8s approached the EP-3, about 70 miles (110 km) away from the Chinese island of Hainan. One of the J-8s, Wang's fighter, collided with the surveillance aircraft after several intercept maneuvers. The J-8 was chopped in half, while the nosecone and a propeller of the EP-3 were severely damaged.
Wang ejected after the collision, but was never found and was declared dead and made a national hero. Meanwhile, the EP-3E made an emergency landing without authorization of the Chinese military at a military airfield in Hainan.
After landing, the U.S. aircraft crew proceeded to destroy sensitive equipment on board the aircraft such as listening devices, as per U.S. Navy protocol. After completing these procedures, they disembarked from the plane. Kept under guard, they were taken to a Chinese military barracks where they were interviewed.
Three United States diplomats were quickly sent to Hainan island to meet with the crew and assess their conditions, and to negotiate their release. Their first opportunity to meet with the crew came the day after the diplomats landed, and they met with them three more times after that.
The crew of 24 was detained until April 11, shortly after the U.S. issued the "letter of the two sorries" to the Chinese.
The "Letter of the two sorries" was the letter delivered by the United States Ambassador Joseph Prueher to Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan of the People's Republic of China to defuse the Hainan Island incident in April 2001. The delivery of the letter led to the release of the U.S. crew from Chinese custody, as well as the return of the disassembled plane.
The letter stated that the United States was "very sorry" for the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, and quoting from the genuine "Two sorries", "We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance ..." .
The only official version of the letter was written in English, and a translation into Chinese was not provided by the U.S. government. However, the Chinese government provided a translation of the letter in Chinese in which they translated the word "sorry" in such a way as to imply an admission of responsibility.
The crew returned to the United States via Hawaii after their release on April 11. The plane, however, was not released until July 3 when the last piece arrived in the United States. China had refused to permit repair of the EP-3 to allow it to leave under its own power and the plane had to be dismantled . The EP-3 was eventually reassembled, and returned to duty.The Chinese military did board the plane, but it is not known if they retrieved any sensitive information, or how effective the crew's destruction of the onboard technology was. The EP-3's pilot, Shane Osborn, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism and extraordinary achievement in flight while the J-8 pilot was hailed as a hero in China. The Chinese media maintains that the plane was in territorial waters at the time of the incident, and that the collision may have been intentional while the U.S. government contends that under the UN definition, (of which China is a signatory), the aircraft was in international airspace and that the collision was caused by the Chinese pilot.
In addition to paying for the dismantling and shipping of the EP-3, the United States paid for the 11 days' food and lodging supplied by the Chinese government to the plane's crew, in the amount of $34,000.