Why it's so difficult for the US to offer a full apology

To many Americans watching from their living rooms, the US-China word war sounds disconcertingly like a sandbox spat between schoolchildren.


"Won't do it."

"Will too."


Yet behind a seemingly puerile clash driven by big power egos and the imperative of "saving face," the United States has important legal and strategic reasons for refusing to offer a full apology.

Legally, a full apology would be tantamount to Washington accepting culpability for the April 1 collision between a US spy plane and Chinese fighter jet, whereas US officials assert the US Navy crew did nothing wrong.

"To apologize is an admission of guilt, and we are not guilty," says James Lilley, who served as ambassador to China under the first Bush administration.

Such an admission of fault, in turn, would legitimize demands from Beijing that Washington provide compensation for the lost Chinese fighter jet and pilot. It would also allow China to argue that it has a right to keep the US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane as "found property," experts say.

Strategically, a US apology would strengthen China's hand in pressing Washington to stop its reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea and other border areas. "It would undercut the rationale for continuing the surveillance flights that take place in international waters," says Bruce Dickson, an Asia expert at George Washington University. "It would be hard for us to refuse Chinese demands to stop the flights."

Politically, too, a US apology would have implications for the Bush administration's relations with Beijing that go beyond what most Americans think of as a simple, "We're sorry." "The Chinese make a big deal out of apologies," says Doug Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center here and a leading Republican China-watcher. "Forcing people to apologize in China is a big part of winning, of overcoming your adversaries."

As such, an apology would imply a political victory by Beijing in its first test of the newly installed Bush government, perhaps setting the tone for the next four years.

Culturally, there is also a sense of kow-towing submission that accompanies apologies in China. "You are asking both forgiveness and lenience of the person you apologize to, and to the United States, that is inappropriate," Mr. Dickson says.

Yet despite Washington's refusals, China's leaders are adamant in insisting upon an apology, both to quench feelings of victimization among China's people, and to satisfy hard-liners within the Communist Party and military who oppose close US-China ties.

China's leaders are also still smarting from 1993, when the US refused to apologize after it stopped the Chinese vessel Yin He and searched it for poison gas but found nothing. The upshot could be a longer standoff than anyone initially predicted.

China, accustomed to working in its own, slow fashion, has miscalculated the growing public outrage in America and the urgency with which United States wants its 24 crew members released.

Indeed, some experts believe that the Chinese early demand for an apology was itself the product of a major miscalculation, with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin receiving distorted information about how the collision occurred from the Chinese military.

"This suggests a cover up by the military," Mr. Lilley says.

The best way out of the impasse would be to "seek truth from facts," says Lilley, citing a favorite saying of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, by authorizing a joint US-China military commission to investigate and report on the collision.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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