On the night of 3/31/2001 (I believe it was the morning of 4/1/2001 local time), an American military reconaissance
aircraft collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter which was shadowing
it. The Chinese plane crashed into the ocean; the American plane was forced to land at a Chinese airfield
It has now been approximately forty-eight hours since this incident. I want to skip talking about who is to blame for the collision, except to say that a fighter jet should have had no trouble avoiding a relatively slow recon plane. I don't know the details of the accident, nor does anyone else except those involved.
What I do want to talk about is China's as-yet unfulfilled obligations to the American airmen and to the American government under Article 118 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 and under the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. The crew of the aircraft in question may have been composed entirely of soldiers, or there may have been some civilians aboard. In either case, the soldiers are entitled to all the rights due prisoners of war, as laid out in the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols thereto.
Article 118 of the Third Geneva Convention states that prisoners "shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities." Since there are no active hostilities going on, China is therefore obligated under Article 118 to release the American airmen and return them home without further delay. The Additional Protocol I goes a little further, listing the "unjustifiable delay in the repatriation of prisoners of war or civilians" as a grave breach of the protocol.
Clearly I am no expert in international law; I have only a somewhat educated layman's understanding of the Geneva Conventions. But China's obligations seem nonetheless clear with respect to the American citizens: they should be returned home immediately.
Note: Much of the legal information contained in this writeup can be found in the excellent reference Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff. It is truly an excellently written, easily understandable reference on the legal obligations of nation-states towards soldiers, civilians, and cultural property of other states.