The White House demand for a "prompt return" of the 24 crew members of a US Navy surveillance plane was met with counter demands from Chinese President Jiang Zemin yesterday.
Mr. Jiang suggested that resolution of this international stand-off - and the release of the American crew - may hinge on a US agreement to stop flying surveillance missions off China's coast, and a US apology.
In laying out for the first time the Chinese view of the event, officials here yesterday painted an entirely different picture of the collision on Sunday, with Chinese officials refuting US claims nearly point by point.
The unexpectedly tough Chinese position, one in which the Chinese vociferously argue they are "victims," suggests the South China Sea case is fast moving from an isolated incident into a broader confrontation with the US - and may indicate that a resolution won't come quickly.
US officials met with the entire Navy crew yesterday on the island of Hainan. But at press time, there was no information about when the crew members would be released.
Such a meeting is itself not necessarily a breakthrough. It takes place in accordance with a US-Chinese consular agreement signed in 1979 by then President Jimmy Carter. The agreement requires the country detaining a US or Chinese foreign national to allow a consular visit within 48 hours of notification. Since Chinese officials first confirmed the presence of the aircrew Sunday night, Tuesday night was the deadline for a visit.
In two separate press briefings here yesterday, Chinese officials refuted almost every point regarding the incident made Monday in Washington and by US Ambassador Joseph Prueher here in Beijing. Western analysts here suggest that the Chinese may were making public a detailed version of events before US officials spoke with the Navy crew.
US officials responded by saying there will be no apology, and privately expressed dismay and some gloom about the prospects for a speedy end to the affair.
The US, for example, says the plane was operating in international air space when it was hit. The Chinese jet fighter was 400 meters away when the EP-3 Navy turboprop aircraft suddenly swerved into it, said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman yesterday. The Chinese yesterday offered an unusual interpretation of international law - saying that the US flight was contravening UN maritime law by operating above a Chinese "economic exclusion zone" that while not strictly Chinese airspace, falls under a category of law that binds military flights to a higher standard of culpability than ordinary civil aviation. US officials claim they were flying in international airspace.
While the US argued the EP-3 aircraft landed legally after sending out a "Mayday" signal; the Chinese say it landed illegally, without permission, and that no signal was given.
The US says the aircrew is immune from Chinese law and that an airplane landing in an emergency is sovereign territory. The Chinese say there is no immunity and no sovereignty.
"There is no immunity," stated Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao at a press conference yesterday. "How is it that American territory has moved to Chinese land? We don't recognize such sovereignty."
When asked about President George Bush's request for a quick return of the crew and plane - a request that did not go over well in China, which probably lost a pilot during Sunday's incident - Mr. Zhu responded: "This is a serious incident, the US is responsible, and it should take effective measures to stop this from happening again. What the US side should do is to make an explanation to the Chinese government and people ... instead of raising these sort of demands, and shirking its responsibilities."
Why China wants to escalate what is already a tragedy into an international event with broader implications is a source of much puzzlement. Experts offer a cornucopia of causes, many of which may be true at the same time, including the possibility that the tough line is simply a temporary ploy that designed to get the get Washington's attention.
"I think it tells us a lot more about the internal political dynamics of China than it does about any [Chinese] assessment of this incident," says Robert Manning, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Politically in China, you don't get anywhere by being soft on the US."
Mr. Manning says that China's response "starts from a sense of aggrievement that has accumulated," citing NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the fact that China's 2000 Olympics bid was blocked, and a pending decision on the sale of US destroyers to Taiwan. "I don't think they've thought through the larger consequences [of their response]."
Among other reasons being discussed by China analysts: Beijing does not like the sterner position on China taken by the Bush administration; they may be striking out at the new White House to show disapproval and to keep the new president off balance. Officials may feel an international incident will exploit sharp differences on how to handle China within the US foreign-policy establishment - pitting hawks against doves.
The "China is a great power" argument is another possibility. China as the preeminent power in Asia does not want to be dictated to by others, and wants US spy missions stopped. China naturally wants to show its people it won't be pushed around. China may feel the White House has already decided to sell high-tech weapons to Taiwan, and this is a preemptive warning about how the future will look. China may also feel the US does not have the stomach or popular mandate for a prolonged confrontation with China.
Again, by making claims of "jurisdiction" over wide swaths of the South China Sea and its airspace, Beijing may feel it is inching closer toward claims of that water and air space.
And China may simply be escalating the incident before releasing the crew members, but keeping the sophisticated spy plane for an extended period.
The difficulty in reading the Chinese position was illustrated yesterday when a Reuters correspondent asked whether the Chinese were worried this incident might negatively affect a pending US decision on arms sales to Taiwan, and a pending Olympics bid. "How can you put Taiwan arms sales and the Olympic Games together? They have no connection?" Mr. Zhu remarked.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor