On May 7, 1999, as part of the NATO air campaign in the former Yugoslavia, five precision-guided bombs from a U.S. B-2 bomber struck the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Belgrade.
The bombs killed three Chinese journalists, injured around 20 Chinese citizens, and destroyed multiple structures in the embassy compound. The bombing also sparked a diplomatic crisis between the governments of the United States and China, which included major protests against the United States in many cities across China. Those three sentences are close to indisputable historical fact. Everything else about this incident and its aftermath is subject to a great deal of interpretation – an interpretation that still, 20 years later, shapes the two countries’ interactions.
For the most part, this history has been forgotten in the United States. The incident is seen as an unfortunate accident and a minor footnote in the tale of modern U.S.-China relations. While the United States immediately claimed that the strike was an accident, the Chinese press denounced the “barbaric act” and claimed it was a violation of Chinese sovereignty, implying intentionality. In China, the incident is both vividly remembered and woven tightly into the broader historical narrative of national humiliation. To this day, it is largely regarded as a deliberate strike on sovereign Chinese territory, despite competing lines of argument for why the United States took such action. The U.S. government’s formal apologies and explanations satisfied neither Chinese leaders nor the Chinese people, a stalemate that holds true from the time of the incident until today.
This huge gap in the historical interpretations merits exploration because the five bombs that detonated 20 years ago still reverberate in today’s policy debates. While plenty of analysis is currently devoted to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Belgrade bombing is arguably more relevant to understanding how current U.S.-China relations evolved. Although there is no shortage of valuable scholarship on the incident — particularly on the crisis-management element of it — most policymakers have yet to contextualize the incident, question alternative explanations for it, and explore how it has shaped — and continues to shape — the contemporary U.S.-Chinese relationship.
While the basic facts of who, what, and when are basically agreed upon by both the United States and China, the how and why questions present a much more challenging case. In the immediate aftermath, the two governments engaged in a diplomatic dance of statements, counter-statements, apologies, demands, and eventual negotiations over compensation. The Chinese public responded by participating in numerous large-scale protests around American interests in China. Notably, both the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the residence of the consul general in Chengdu were physically damaged as the protests, which are widely understood to have been state-sanctioned, turned violent.
Within a week of the bombing, the protests subsided, and the presidents of the two countries spoke on the phone. The United States sent a special envoy to share the findings of its internal investigation, but the Chinese side was less than impressed:
We have taken note of the apology extended to the Chinese government and the people by the government and leaders of the US […]. However, it must be pointed out that the explanations the US side has supplied so far for the cause of the incident are anything but convincing and that the ensuing conclusion of the so-called mistaken bombing is by no means acceptable to the Chinese government and people.
Nonetheless, negotiations continued into the fall, and the crisis eventually ended with both governments compensating each other for damages rendered. The United States to China for the deaths, injuries, and damage to its embassy in Belgrade, and China to the United States for damage to diplomatic buildings in China caused by the violent protests.
So, what really happened? The findings of three major investigations don’t necessarily clarify things. First, the U.S. Department of Defense’s official verdict was that the bombing was “entirely unintended”:
It was the result of a failure in the process of identifying and validating proposed targets. The headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement was a legitimate military target, but the technique used to locate it was severely flawed. None of the military or intelligence databases used to validate targets contained the correct location of the Chinese Embassy. Nowhere in the target review process was a mistake detected.
Interestingly, the source of this target was the Central Intelligence Agency, not a NATO or Defense Department command or intelligence unit. This complicates the administrative story somewhat, as it is the only target of the entire NATO air campaign selected by the CIA. The stated reasoning for the exception was as follows:
As the air campaign failed to achieve quick success and dragged on longer than expected, the Pentagon feared that it would run out of top-notch targets and sought suggestions from the CIA […] Reeling from its error, the agency almost immediately suspended other preparations it was making to forward additional targets to help NATO.
The second mainstream investigation was from Amnesty International, which lent some credence to the Chinese outrage: “all indications are that the very basic information needed to prevent this mistake was publicly and widely available at the time.” While that judgment is unequivocal, the report also lauds the U.S. government for conducting an investigation, compensating the victims of the strike, and internally disciplining those responsible for the mistake. The report concludes by crediting the Chinese government for this, claiming that its “prolonged and intense diplomatic pressure” contributed significantly to the United States taking proper action to rectify the error.
The last investigation is the most controversial. Published in the British newspaper The Observer in November of 1999, this version of events describes the United States intentionally bombing the Chinese embassy to punish the Chinese for providing material support to President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime:
The true story — though it is being denied by everyone from Albright, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and CIA director George Tenet down — is that the Americans knew exactly what they were doing. The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was deliberately targeted by the most precise weapons in the U.S. arsenal because it was being used by Zeljko Raznatovic, the indicted war criminal better known as Arkan, to transmit messages to his ‘Tigers’ — Serb death squads — in Kosovo.
The report also claimed that the “journalists” killed were actually intelligence officers, as it is relatively common Chinese practice to use official state media roles as cover for clandestine intelligence work. The media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) followed up with two of its own reports detailing first how U.S. media outlets did not cover The Observer’s report and then further corroborating details that supported The Observer report:
The Observer’s findings appear to corroborate other information that was previously known about the attack. For example, the CIA admitted that out of more than 900 sites targeted by NATO during the Kosovo campaign, it developed only one target: the site of the Chinese embassy (AP, 7/22/99). The London Daily Telegraph (6/27/99) disclosed that NATO’s precision-guided missiles struck only the embassy’s intelligence-gathering section. And German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took the unusual step of publicly questioning NATO’s explanation of the attack (AFP, 5/12/99). Together with these additional pieces of information, The Observer investigation appears to stand on remarkably firm ground.
Needless to say, The Observer report was denied by both governments in question. There has been little inquiry since to either prove or disprove its claim, in part, as Bob Harris wrote in Mother Jones, because “If The Observer story is true, then both China and NATO engaged in direct violations of international law amounting to acts of war.”
The Historical Context: National Humiliation and Power Transition
To do justice to the crisis and the tension of the time — and to make sense of the reactions of both sides — we need context. The Chinese reaction — the protests and the grudge — was rooted in the deep sense that this event fits neatly into the narrative of a long history of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. While this narrative informs China’s reaction to the May 1999 bombing, it is also critical to understand that the Chinese were also deeply skeptical of the entire NATO campaign. To them, the bombing occurred in the context of an unjustified hegemonic power play by the overreaching United States. As Tom Christensen has written:
International intervention in Yugoslavia over Kosovo set a dangerous precedent for China, as it showed a new willingness on the part of the U.S. and its allies to carve up ethnically and geographically diverse sovereign countries. Chinese security analysis portrayed the entire Kosovo operation as a realpolitik gambit to increase U.S. and NATO influence in Eastern Europe and to encourage destabilizing separatist movement like the Kosovo Liberation Army at the expense of “non-Western” powers such as Russia and China.
The Chinese were firmly against this type of intervention due to their historical suffering from foreign interventions and the contested political situations of Tibet and Xinjiang (and even Taiwan) — and the potential precedent set by such an intervention.
Yet U.S. policymakers were hasty to dismiss the May bombing crisis because they missed this context completely, largely due to the U.S. objective of continuing the air campaign and the hubristic assumption that their explanations and apologies would be readily accepted by their Chinese counterparts. Historically, after all, the American self-conception is that U.S. power is generally on the right side of history and produces well in the world. At the time of the NATO air campaign in the spring of 1999, President Bill Clinton was representing an intervention in Yugoslavia as a mix of moral imperative and national interest:
If we’ve learned anything from the century drawing to a close, it is that if America is going to be prosperous and secure, we need a Europe that is prosperous, secure, undivided, and free. We need a Europe that is coming together, not falling apart, a Europe that shares our values and shares the burdens of leadership.
In the U.S. rhetoric, prosperity and security were inextricably linked with freedom, values, and leadership. But in the Chinese view, all those lofty words and goals were just sugar-coating the jagged pill of U.S. expansionism.
Implications for Sino-U.S. Relations Today
This context provides several takeaways for contemporary observers and practitioners of Sino-U.S. relations. On the U.S. side, the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade remains an almost forgotten and insignificant footnote to a rarely discussed NATO campaign. This short and distracted historical memory is characteristic of the United States, but also dangerous when it fails to take into account that historical memory functions very differently in China. For the Chinese, the bombing still carries a great deal of significance because it fits so well with the dominant narrative of national humiliation, a story aggressively peddled by the state and essential for maintaining Chinese Communist Party dominance and momentum for its mission of national rejuvenation. In this regard, significance ought to be in the eye of the beholder, and U.S. policymakers ignore Chinese interpretations of this history at their own peril.
And what if the embassy strike was indeed intentional and designed as a response to Chinese covert support for Milosevic? What can we learn from such a thought exercise? While the attack may have still been unnecessary or unjust from a Chinese perspective, it would have at least been provoked, which undercuts Chinese narratives about victimization. As for the U.S. side, it would reveal the United States boldly taking a bullying line and clearly flouting international law and norms, thus exposing how much of a charade the United States is willing to put up to keep its methods and purpose secret.
Zooming out, the bombing would also provide historical evidence in support of the U.S. view of China as a revisionist power — a view that was recently included in the National Security Strategy. Chinese actions in support of Milosevic could then be seen as testing just how far China could push back against the United States without repercussions. This might also shed new light on the 2001 EP-3 incident, in which a Chinese fighter pilot collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane. More significantly, given that President Xi Jinping’s Davos keynote displays a rhetorical commitment to leaving zero-sum thinking behind and forging win-win partnerships throughout the world, such straightforward realpolitik behavior would reveal a major gap between word and deed. If that were the case, Chinese revisionism has much deeper roots than commonly believed and is not tied directly to Xi Jinping’s rise.
The Past is Never Dead
As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crisis, there will be plenty of proof that different interpretations of history are deepening the divide between the United States and China. While there is little hope for a historical reconciliation on either that event or the Belgrade embassy bombing, understanding these divergent histories should inform our policymaking process. U.S. leaders need to understand how divergent histories emerge, how the Chinese Communist Party uses history, and how the Chinese people interpret these key events.
In 1999, the United States flexed its muscle in the Kosovo campaign and showed the world how it intended to lead the liberal world order. America is in a decidedly different position on the international stage than it was 20 years ago, and it no longer has the privilege of sweeping incidents like the Belgrade bombing under the rug. I am not confident that Sino-American crisis management and resolution would work as effectively today as it did then. When it comes to U.S.-Chinese competition, it is not an overstatement to say that the global future may hang in the balance. As we witness increasing demonization and saber-rattling on both sides of the Pacific, the anniversary of the Belgrade bombing should serve as a call for a closer look at history and a more intellectually humble approach to these divergent histories.
Maj. Tom Fox is an Army aviation officer and instructor of international affairs and Chinese politics in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He holds a BSFS from Georgetown University and an MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
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