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Diplomatic Standoff

Diplomatic StandoffDowned U.S. spy plane ignites dispute over diplomatic immunity. Washington.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.03.01] This weekend's emergency landing of a U.S. surveillance plane in China touched off a tense round of diplomatic maneuvers between U.S. officials and the Chinese government.

In the days since the 24-member crew landed on a remote Chinese island, U.S. government officials have repeatedly instructed China not to board the plane or detain the military personnel, citing diplomatic immunity.

But Hurst Hannum -- a Tufts expert on international law -- told the Washington Post that the U.S. may have a tough time making its case.

"Diplomatic immunity doesn't attach automatically to anyone who works for the government," he said.

According to the Post, "Hannum said that because there appears to be little dispute that the incident took place over international waters, then the United States' legal right to the EP-3 [surveillance plane] depends on its ability to show the plane landed at Hainin only because China -- by damaging it -- forced it down."

The Fletcher School professor told the newspaper that these types of situations require careful diplomacy.

"Once you're in the other country's jurisdiction, you have to look for some reason not to be there," he told the Post.

Claims of immunity may be in jeopardy, Hannum added, if an investigation shows the U.S. plane was at fault for the accident. In that case, Hannum said, "I'm not sure they would enjoy any immunity."

The Tufts expert told ABC News that the international dispute may continue to grow.

"Almost any disagreement between two countries as powerful as the United States and China does have the possibility of turning into a crisis," the Tufts expert said.

While discussions between the two countries continue, U.S. officials continue to call on China not to board the plane.

"Our view is that military aircraft have sovereign immunity under international law and practice," said State Department spokesman and 1973 Tufts graduate Richard Boucher. "We have made that view quite clear to the Chinese."

In a press briefing, Boucher continually called on the Chinese government to allow the U.S. "prompt access" to the plane and crew.

"International air crews that make emergency landings need to be provided with the ability to communicate and speak directly with their national government, and that it is standard international practice and basic handling of an emergency situation to get them in touch with us as soon as possible," he said in a press briefing.

But history may not be on the United States' side, the Tufts international law expert told the Post.

Reported the Post: "Hannum said 'normal procedures' in such cases are not always clear-cut. A spy plane flying over hostile airspace takes its chances, he said. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, spent two years in prison."

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