US 'sorry' heard in Beijing as an apology
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In this case, the release of the US Navy crew - but not the plane - was made palatable in China through linguistic hair-splitting.
The US apology - of sorts - that China needed to save face and bring the standoff to a close was announced in the Chinese press yesterday: "Secretary Powell ... 'feels sorry' " stated a banner Page 1 headline in Beijing Youth Daily.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell's "sorry," issued Sunday, was initially interpreted as mild "regret" and not the level of apology China sought. There are four basic degrees of apology in Chinese. But by yesterday, the influential Beijing paper translated America's top diplomat's words as bao qian - a second-level apology officially acknowledged for the first time.
After the 11-day roller-coaster ride of diplomacy, near apologies, demands, and a borderline international crisis - what allowed the US and China to reach a solution is a partial US apology that its EP-3 surveillance aircraft entered Chinese airspace and landed without a verbal agreement.
US officials did not accept responsibility for the air collision itself - a dispute that is likely to carry on for some time. Moreover, the letter from US Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan leaves the emergency landing of the EP-3 as a misunderstanding. The US says it sent a "Mayday" signal; China says it did not receive that communication.
Still, Beijing can accept and characterize here Ambassador Prueher's letter as an apology. The letter also expresses sorrow to China and the Chinese pilot's family for their loss. On April 18, both sides will meet to discuss differences.
Beijing's announcement came with little warning. For days, and despite various expressions of sorrow and regret by the US president and top officials, China publicly characterized the US as not "cooperative" enough; it began to seem that freedom for the 24 detainees would await the return next week from South America of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
China, however, apparently calculating that a set of fast-moving factors could culminate in less sympathy abroad, and a potentially harmful toll on China's interests, decided to end the affair.
Factors mentioned by experts here include negative US and world opinion, a more detailed airing of the two different versions of events above the South China Sea on April 1, potential fraying of business ties, and an overall hostile relationship with the new Bush administration that would not forever be able to separate the air incident from such decisions as support of an Olympics bid, WTO membership, and Taiwan arms sales.
By allowing the crew to go this week, some diplomats here say, China still appears reasonable and even forbearing.
Moreover, China's handling of the affair allows what it feels is plenty of legal and diplomatic cover to keep the sophisticated US aircraft for an indefinite amount of time. From a military point of view, this is a windfall for the Chinese Army - which was smarting from a recent defection of an officer to the US. "The provisions of relevant laws of China ... allow a comprehensive investigation of a military aircraft illegally entering Chinese airspace," stated Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi.
Despite Beijing's public position of stonewalling in recent days, it appears the leadership here was close to a decision perhaps several days ago. President Jiang was traveling with China's top diplomat Qian Qichen, and experts say Mr. Qian would have kept Mr. Jiang well informed on the pressures coming from the American side.
Early notice of decision