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China digs in on its demands

The window for quick resolution is closing, as China balances between its hard-liners and diplomats.

By Robert Marquand Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2001


Hope for the quick release of 24 US crew members still held in China has been dealt multiple blows, symbolized best by the craggy face of Defense Minister Chi Haotian on Chinese TV. He stated the US should not "shirk its responsibility" in apologizing for the April 1 air accident.

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General Chi, the No. 2 ranking military officer in China after President Jiang Zemin, appeared with the wife of missing Chinese pilot Wang Wei, who has been lionized as a hero in China. Chi's presence is a loud signal that, whatever representations are being made to US officials by Chinese diplomats who reportedly wish a quick end to the dispute, powerful, more hard-line military leaders are also part of the decisions here.

US expectations soared last week after some breaks. US officials met with the crew members, and said they were in high spirits and had been treated well. And Secretary of State Colin Powell said there was diplomatic "movement" toward resolution.

Yet after Day Eight of the crisis, it appears China is playing a careful game of give-and-take - not backing off its original demands for an apology and limits on US surveillance missions along China's coast. Moreover, with an elaborate set of ground rules for meetings between US officials and the detained crew in Hainan, China continues to control the story and the version of events that took place in the skies above the South China Sea.

China, which seeks to join the World Trade Organization, win its 2008 Olympics bid this summer, and block US weapons sales to Taiwan, has shown sensitivity to mounting US domestic pressure on the White House by giving access to the crew, experts here say.

Yet almost immediately after Mr. Powell offered an enthusiastic interpretation of the meetings and of diplomatic exchanges, China's Vice Premier and top foreign policy diplomat Qian Qichen fired off a letter over the weekend stating a US apology is "of utmost importance."

US officials insist that they cannot apologize for an incident they have not been allowed to investigate - creating an international stalemate that could allow hard-line nationalist forces in China more latitude and throw the new Bush administration into a potentially debilitating crisis.

"We have expressed regrets, we've expressed our sorrow, and we are sorry that a life was lost," Powell said on FOX TV yesterday. "The question of apology is something quite different, because then we are being asked to accept responsibility. And that we have not done, can't do, and therefore won't apologize for that."

He said the two sides are looking for "the right words" so "we can get through this without damaging the relationship any more than it already has been damaged."

Slower pace

Negotiations between American and Chinese officials picked up at the end of last week, with aides to President Bush and President Jiang reportedly exchanging a "draft letter of regret." The letter would allow both sides to save face - with the US language giving the People's Republic a virtual apology, and allowing China to characterize it more concretely. Yet the blunt assertion by Mr. Qian, requiring a formal apology, dashed these hopes.

Mr. Jiang, who is traveling in Latin America until later this month, said on Friday from Chile, "I have visited many countries and I see that when people have an accident ... the two parts always say "excuse me." Some observers read Jiang's characterization of "accident" to be a mild concession; others felt it a polite reiteration of the apology request.