Belgrade to Beijing and Back Again7 min read

The 1999 Chinese embassy bombing, revisited – Sale Lilly

Warheads on Foreheads. I suspect that locution – a coarse motto of American military targeting cells – is as unfamiliar to Chinese history students as a Chinese idiom might be to American military personnel. The phrase implies that American bombs fall squarely on their intended target, and nowhere else. But that has not always been the case. May 7, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. Three Chinese citizens died in the bombing, itself a part of a much larger military and diplomatic campaign led by the US to compel the Yugoslav government to cease hostilities in Kosovo. The US characterized the strike in sterile terms as “an error” and a targeting “anomaly.”

The Chinese government unequivocally disagreed, and claimed the strike was an intentional act of American malice. The bombing generated a crisis in Sino-American relations and a related protest movement across China. The same weekend of the strike in 1999, I was busy thumbing through stacks of promotional military pamphlets from the US military. I was one year away from joining the service, and my sense of patriotism – combined with a general skepticism of Chinese claims – led me to confidently think the US was telling the truth. Over the next 20 years my career and studies would take me to that bombed building in Belgrade, to the buildings where the bombings were planned, and to Beijing. I played no role in the events of 1999, but the consequences of the strikes, and the lack of definitive evidence proving which nation’s account of the bombing was true, still puzzles me.

The lack of definitive evidence proving which nation’s account of the bombing was true still puzzles me”

Curiosity and cockroaches drove me out of my hostel bed and out into the streets of Belgrade. It was 2005, I was teaching English in the Balkans through a charity, and my Serbian hostel lived up to the advertised “budget accommodations.” Lonely Planet said the bombed Chinese embassy was still there – the ruins were only cleared around 2009 – so I walked the distance from my hostel to Trešnjinog Sveta Street. Standing in front of the ruins of the embassy, it appeared as if the hand of God had reached into the third and fourth floors with a surgeon’s precision to extract their contents. I immediately changed my mind about America’s role in the bombing, and couldn’t help but think: this was no accident. I found myself in agreement with Chinese diplomat Sun Yuxi, who, on seeing the damage the blast inflicted, said:

When I visited the actual site it seemed the embassy was clearly targeted so I cannot say – this is not really a mistake, as they [the US] say. Because there were several missiles that hit the embassy from difficult angles so I think it was clearly targeted.

Sun’s logic seemed to convey that if there had been less precision, and fewer use of the so-called smart bombs that were meant to never miss, then the strike may have been a more credible accident. Was there any chance that the Chinese official narrative was victim to its own beliefs about American military prowess? I’ve found that consideration a worthy diversion.

To understand how Chinese military thought has evolved over the past three decades, it is helpful to briefly return to the winter of 1991, where the results of the First Gulf War hang like an albatross around the neck of Chinese strategic thought. In Operation Desert Storm, a US-led coalition shattered the Iraqi Army, the world’s fourth-largest armed forces, in a matter of days. Escaping the same fate became the preoccupation of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA), itself a Soviet-styled military command structure, just like the Iraqi Army. Wang Yongnan , writing for PLA strategy publications two decades later, was in tangible awe of the targeting feats of the Gulf War:

What is even more amazing, is that a guided bomb actually penetrated the tall chimney at the top of the Iraqi air defense command building, went into the building and destroyed the Iraqi military command center.

In Wang’s writing, American warheads seem to possess the dexterity of Santa Claus, capable of shimmying down a chimney for lethal effect. PLA strategists translate the American phrase “pinpoint strikes” as “acupuncture-style” strikes (diǎnxué shì 点穴式). It’s a word choice that leaves little room for strategists to consider accident, conflating precision with accuracy. Yet just as weather forecasts can be precise in detail and inaccurate in prediction, so too can military strikes. So in considering the eight years from 1991 leading up to 1999, it is essential to see the Chinese reaction to the bombing in light of a widespread belief in the American military’s technologically-enabled omniscience. The American government’s own synoptic recounting of the 1991 Gulf War would certainly strengthen that belief:

…targeteers now want to know precisely which function is conducted in which building or even in which part of the building, since they have the capability to strike with great accuracy.

If the Chinese government had ever read that claim, it would be next to impossible for them to believe the American official response in 1999 from then Secretary of Defense William Cohen that, “Clearly, faulty information led to a mistake in the initial targeting of this facility.” To Chinese audiences, nothing about the strike was clear.

The Chinese embassy in Belgrade that was struck in 1999 and later abandoned (Wikicommons/Stuinzuri)

In 2009, I was working in Italy at one of the US military bases that had planned for and contributed to the air war against the Yugoslav military in ’99. My head did a double-take the first time I saw a mislabeled military map. The scale of the error was astounding: an entire country was mislabeled. And it wasn’t even a conceivable mistake, such as labeling the Democratic Republic of Congo as its legacy, Zaire. I changed my mind once again about America’s complicity in the Belgrade embassy bombing. America couldn’t have intentionally bombed the Chinese embassy; bureaucratic stupidity was so much more elegant a solution. As Hanlon’s Razor puts it, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

At that time, fortunately, America was not at war. But like an unpredictable pachinko ball bearing, a few bad bounces could have sent the faulty map to an overworked and sleep-deprived team planning combat operations minutes, or months, later. If PRC diplomats had any doubt that bureaucratic ignorance could foul American military planning, our military maps bear the fool’s warning “not to be used for targeting” as a necessary condescension.

I changed my mind once again. America couldn’t have intentionally bombed the Chinese embassy; bureaucratic stupidity was a more elegant solution”

Can America and the People’s Republic of China still trust one another? If perspective was fungible, we could tell each other truths. You could see the perfidy of maps, the smart bomb blast damage, and different perspectives of the bombing by American and Chinese patriots. But few will have so many perspectives, and certainly no one diplomat could have access to those views in a timely manner. Today, I still don’t know with full confidence which embassy bombing scenario is true. Some officer in a windowless room, with an insider’s experience of the 1999 air war, knows the truth. They know on which side of Hanlon’s Razor – malice or stupidity – the bombing landed. But the truth is buried in paperwork and rubble, on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the end, military accidents do not conform to the difference between negligent manslaughter and murder. A smart bomb targeting an incorrect facility detonates just the same, just as an intentionally hazardous act of navigation in the South China Sea between two warships can appear from the outside as flawed seamanship. The world’s two largest militaries – both of which are still growing – will abut one another for decades to come. And if the legacy of the 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing remains just a case study, we might be missing a greater truth in Sino-American relations: that this 20th anniversary also marks the anniversary of the end of credible truth-telling in our bilateral relationship. ∎

Header: A US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bomber striking a decommissioned command ship (Wikicommons/US Air Force).