China digs in on its demands

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

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.

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.

Some sources in Beijing speculate that behind closed doors, a rough timeline for the release of the crew has already been set. According to this theory, Chinese officials have told the US not to take too seriously the various high-volume protests and chest thumping in Beijing media - that such expressions of pride and muscle are needed for domestic purposes.

However, a higher military profile in recent days has thrown at least a damp towelette over this theory. Yesterday, the newspaper "Liberation Army Daily," voice of China's Army, said the army has the right to "fully investigate" all aspects of the incident - the crew and the plane. Such assertions strike some China hands as grounds for a lengthier detention. If so, the terms of the detention become more pertinent, further delaying a chance for the American pilots and crew to tell their version of events.

Further, Jiang Wannian, one of the most senior hands-on figures in the military, was in Australia when the collision took place. He was paraphrased by Australian foreign ministry officials as saying he expected a speedy return of the US plane and crew. However, rather than returning to Beijing in the middle of what is essentially a military crisis, Mr. Jiang flew to New Zealand, where he remains.

Since April 1, China has insisted that the slow-moving four-prop EP-3 Aries surveillance plane caused the accident by "suddenly swerving" into the Chinese F-8 fighter.

Yet so far, no details by US pilots have been forthcoming. Three meetings between US officials and the crew have taken place under close Chinese supervision. They are prefaced by several hours of detailed ground rules. No recording equipment is allowed. US officials asked to bring in cellphones so crew could call family. But they were denied permission. Chinese authorities have allowed printed notes from family members to the crew, but the crew is not allowed to send messages out.

So far, the US military attache allowed into the 30-to-50-minute meetings has given no details of the incident - if any were discussed. Sources point out that if a US diplomat emerged from the room with a version of the facts that was different from that given by China, it would not facilitate a faster release.

Over the weekend, China sought to bolster its version of events by airing an emotional interview with Zhao Yu, pilot of the second F-8 fighter. Mr. Zhao is a crucial figure, since, other than the US crew, he is presumably the only other living eyewitness to the Sunday morning clash, when Mr. Wang's plane hit the nose and left propeller of the EP-3.

Second Chinese pilot's account

In Zhao's account, the EP-3 is the "direct reason for the collision ... due to a sudden big movement ... making it impossible to avoid." Zhao said the two Chinese pilots left Lingshui Airfield in Hainan at 8:45 a.m. amid clear skies, with visibility of seven miles. About 10 minutes later, they saw the EP-3. When the US crew saw them, they made a large turn in nearly the opposite direction, according to Zhao, and the two jets began to tail the plane. According to Zhao, both pilots were on the left side of the US plane, between Hainan Island and the US plane.

At 9:05, the US plane made a second large turn, which Zhao and pilot Wang also followed, slowing down to the same speed as the EP-3. Then at 9:07, the US craft turned again, says Zhao, hitting the jet of Mr. Wang, and knocking off the bottom of its rear wing. "This is a breach of flying rules," stated Zhao.

Whether Zhao's version of events is agreed to or denied by the US crew is still unknown.

But if Zhao's account is correct, says one observer, the US plane turned three times within a roughly 10-to-12-minute frame of time - suggesting a pattern of turns, rather than an isolated one.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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