Up front, I am NOT an expert on aviation or on military maneuvers, and have NO inside information. The following is based purely on speculation and guesswork.
To make things clearer, let’s reverse the roles for a moment. SUPPOSE, just suppose, that the Chinese had a high tech spy plane, and they were circling over one of our aircraft carriers in the middle of the Pacific. Would the Chinese have a legal right to do this? Sure, if the carrier is in international waters. Would the U.S. Navy like this? Not one bit, even though they know they have no real beef with the Chinese spy plane. So, what would the commander’s carrier do? My hunch is, a macho admiral would send up a couple of his gung-ho jet fighters. NOT to attack the spy plane, of course, just to “buzz” the spy plane, send a message that “we know what you’re up to,” and maybe give them a bit of a scare.
My HUNCH (once again, only a hunch) is that something like this happened to our spy plane. The Chinese knew it was there, they knew the plane had a legal right to be there, but they didn’t like it (any more than we like being spied on), so they sent up a few fighters, to flex their muscles, and say “We know you’re here, we know you’re spying on us, get lost.” One of their pilots was a little too macho and aggressive (as most good fighter pilots in ALL air forces are), went a little too far, and caused a wreck.
Now, if the roles were reversed, and a Chinese spy plane crashed down on our territory, what would we do? I expect we’d take the crew into custody for “debrefing” and have some of our technical people go over their plane with a fine tooth comb. In a few days or a few weeks, once we’d gotten all the info woe could out of the crew and the plane (and after making China squirm a little), we’d turn the crew over… and (eventually) the plane, too.
So, I see a lot of gamesmanship going on here, but it doesn’t HAVE to be a crisis. The Chinese enjoy making us squirm a bit, but they’re not going to execute the prisoners. At SOME point, they’re going to turn them over to us. It’s all part of the spy game. Let’s not overdramatize or overpersonalize this.