For us, the EP-3E is a lightning rod. The incident shows that the Chinese are serious. If indeed they forced the airplane down, and did not merely allow it to land after their fighter accidentally and almost fatally damaged it, they have seized a U.S.-flag airplane in international airspace. That is an act of war, no matter the manner in which it is cloaked. The effrontery of demanding an apology harks back to the Chinese idea that their legitimate sphere of sovereignty is the entire Far East, in which we are intruding.(from a 2001 Naval Institute Proceedings article by Norman Friedman)
Presumably the Chinese view is that forcing down a U.S. airplane is not nearly as dangerous as attacking a U.S. warship, and that our reaction will show just how serious we are. In that case focusing on the crew is a mistake. At the least, we ought to be demanding an apology from the Chinese, and probably some restitution for damage to the airplane. It is argued that the Chinese cannot afford the loss of “face” that would be involved. However, the Chinese are equally aware that a U.S. step down will seriously damage our own prestige in the Far East. Indeed, that may have been the purpose of the incident.
The burden would seem to be on the Chinese to prove that the incident was not an intentional attack. The Chinese pilot has repeatedly been described, in the U.S. press, as a maverick who liked to show off. Given the tight control the Chinese government excercises, and the very high level at which the United States was accused of various misdeeds, a more plausible explanation would be that he was a particularly expert pilot brought in specifically to cause aerial incidents short of military action. The Chinese have to make a plausible case that his actions were not authorized at the highest levels. Although the incident is quite serious, given other factors it is not likely to lead to war, or even to a breach of relations. More likely a cold war with the Chinese is developing, and the EP-3E incident will be seen, in five or ten years, as an important early indication of just where the situation was going.
For the United States, the incident probably shows that the Chinese believe that their small force of ballistic missiles gives them considerable freedom of action against us. A credible U.S. national missile defense would go a long way toward dispelling any such view, because it would indicate to the Chinese leadership just how serious the United States was. Most of the missile defense debate has occurred on two levels. One is technical: how easy would it be to defeat? Another is political: how badly will a U.S. system upset our allies? Neither is altogether relevant. The real issue is how such a system would affect the calculations of its likely enemies, which certainly include the Chinese.
It occurs to me that our Western minds don't always grasp the issue of "face" as understood by the Chinese or the North Koreans (who have on display as a "war memorial" the seized USS Pueblo). In retrospect, should we have taken a harder line in the EP-3E matter? Probably...