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Risks rise as plane standoff drags

Pressure builds for Beijing and Washington to act tough as politics, pride collide.

By Peter Grier and Robert Marquand Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2001



WASHINGTON AND BEIJING

On the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea, sits a monument to the dangers of geostrategic snooping: the USS Pueblo.

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A spy ship seized by the North Koreans in 1968, the Pueblo was the subject of months of tense multinational diplomacy. Its crew was finally released, but the ship itself stayed behind. Today it is a museum, complete with grainy video displays inveighing against US "imperialism" and "enemy aggression."

The current spy-plane standoff with China does not yet approach the seriousness of the Pueblo incident. Both Beijing and Washington profess hope that their long-term relations will not be affected by this short-term problem.

But the history of the Pueblo reminds that national pride, disputed territory, and electronic intelligence-gathering can be an explosive mix. What begins as a routine military spy mission can become a means for two nations to gather a different sort of intelligence - how the other behaves under intense international and domestic pressure.

"There is definitely an element of testing going on, on both sides," says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence and government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

At time of writing the eventual resolution of the downed spy-plane incident remained unclear.

There were, however, at least some positive signs. Behind the scenes, for the first time, diplomatic exchanges appeared to be increasing, though the substance and tone of the meetings remained a mystery.

Publicly, Beijing says the US expression of "regret" articulated mid-week by US Secretary of State Colin Powell is a sign of "progress."

But Chinese officials reiterate that Beijing still requires an apology, a general "explanation" to the Chinese people by US leaders, and better "cooperation" before a release of 24 crew members of the EP-3 surveillance plane is possible.

Moreover, Chinese officials are not ruling out the possibility that the crew, or part of the crew, is being interrogated. Such questioning would be "natural," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi during a strained press meeting yesterday. Beijing is avoiding characterizing the status of the crew, which is being held on Hainan Island in South China. Spokesmen would not characterize them as prisoners, spies, captives, detainees, or anything else.

However, US officials in China, obviously wishing both for a return of the crew and the avoidance of a serious schism with Beijing, are expressing a brighter tone. "Things are looking good," said Ambassador Joseph Prueher to waiting reporters outside the US Embassy yesterday.

Still at issue is the nature of the South China Sea airspace where the collision between the lumbering US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet occurred.

China claims a normal 12-mile zone for its airspace off its coast. But due to the islands that dot the sea south of Hainan, China also claims an "economic exclusion zone" for the waters extending some 200 miles off its coast.

In the current crisis, China is asking that the airspace above this exclusion zone, which has been viewed by most of the international community as international airspace, now be free for civil aviation, but not for military or "hostile" aviation.