Tony Blair stepped in to de-escalate a dispute between Beijing and Washington that followed the capture of the crew of a US spy plane in April 2001, declassified cabinet papers show.
The EP-3 plane was forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese air strip at Hainan island in the South China Sea after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet, which was lost along with its pilot.
Relations between the US and China took a dangerous turn in the aftermath of the incident, which resulted in the crew being interrogated and held by the Chinese military.
Related cabinet papers reveal how quickly Blair, then UK prime minister, cultivated his relationship with President George W Bush at a time when the Labour government was still puzzling over the extent to which the new administration in Washington was going to take a unilateralist approach to world affairs.
The incident also shows British efforts behind the scenes to preserve improvements in China-US relations, amid optimism at the time about the prospects of China joining the World Trade Organization.
It also indicates the UK’s attempts to strengthen its own relationship with the rapidly developing communist state.
The documents are part of a tranche of declassified cabinet files released by the National Archives in Kew, London, this week.
Writing to the then Chinese president Jiang Zemin at Bush’s request, Blair warned that a resolution to the Hainan incident was needed urgently, “if lasting damage to the relationship between China and the US is to be avoided”.
Bush was concerned that a prolonged dispute would strengthen the hand of isolationists within the US, accounts of telephone conversations between the former president and Blair show.
It was impossible for him to issue the apology the Chinese government wanted, given that the US plane had been travelling through what Washington considered international airspace.
Blair said that Beijing seemed unaware of the amount of public pressure on Washington that was mounting as a result of the incident. Blair’s personal message to Jiang pleaded for him to ensure the release of the servicemen before Easter.
The US crew were in fact released the next day after the Americans had also written expressing regret at the death of the Chinese fighter pilot involved in the accident. The plane, which was carrying sensitive US data and machinery, was disassembled and returned to the US in July that year.
The extent to which Blair’s intervention figured in Beijing’s decision is unclear. But it was received with considerable gratitude by Bush, who wrote to thank the former Labour leader.
The New Labour government placed immense importance on cultivating its relationship with China. Official documents from the National Archives also showed internal conversations about how to improve relations between the two countries.
The then foreign secretary Jack Straw wrote to Blair and the whole cabinet in July 2002 advising that Britain needed to “respond more actively to China’s increasing emergence as a major economic and political force”, noting that the country was becoming a significant diplomatic player.
Straw also warned that the UK risked falling behind European rivals in improving relations with Beijing, especially France and Germany.
A Foreign Office strategy paper approved by Straw stated that “there is some evidence” that China valued more highly its relations with France and Germany for their “more autonomous foreign policy and industrial muscle”.
But the Foreign Office officials also wrote in the same briefing document that the war on terror confirmed the UK to be a “channel to Washington”.