Suppose for a minute that the Chinese regularly sent a spy aircraft down the coast of California about fifty miles from land. Suppose there was a collision between this plane and a couple of American fighter jets and an American crashed into the sea and the Chinese spy plane was forced to make an emergency landing in San Francisco.
The Americans, of course, would return the plane and the crew immediately, and apologize for accidentally colliding with the Chinese plane.
Obviously not. When a Russian pilot defected with his rare Mig-25 back in the 1980's, the U.S. held onto the plane for a couple of years, until they had exhaustively analyzed it, and then politely returned it... with the wings on backwards.
The truth is that the Americans were spying on China and the truth is that the Chinese jet probably crashed into the Americans in an idiotic demonstration of bravado that Americans usually adore, as in movies like "Top Gun". If only the Chinese pilot had been Tom Cruise, with lovely, horny Kelly McGillis waiting breathlessly for him back on the aircraft carrier.... all would have been well. We would have admired the macho, testosterone-soaked will of the groovy little spunky powerhouse pilot.
Are we sorry? No. I mean, we feel really, really, really, really bad, but we're not officially, legally, diplomatically guilty of anything, so, no, we're not sorry. Please give us our spies back.
The whole thing is really rather boring except as a demonstration of how macho politics can sometimes-- not this time, but sometimes-- lead to increased tensions and anger and shorter fuses and more macho pilots making bravado gestures and submarines playing chicken and diplomats issuing warnings and gestures and assholes like Jesse Helms calling for holy retribution and eventually war, and then you have to wonder if the baby sitting in the charred ruins of the bombed-out village really cares about whether George Bush Jr.'s weenie was really all that frighteningly big.
Back off, big boy, the missiles are on the way.