Bush, Chinese soften rhetoric

Diplomats seeking compromise to save face in air collision

Jiang refers to `accident'

April 06, 2001|By Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman | Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S.-China tensions over a crippled American spy plane and its detained crew showed signs of easing yesterday as diplomats on both sides struggled toward a face- saving compromise and President Bush repeated U.S. expressions of regret over a lost Chinese airman.

"I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes was lost," Bush told a group of newspaper editors. "And our prayers go out to the pilot, his family."

Keeping with the administration's line, Bush stopped short of apologizing for the midair collision Sunday between a Chinese jet fighter and a U.S. reconnaissance plane, and he called again for the return of its crew of 21 men and three women.

But Bush's expression of regret and condolence, because it came from the president, elevated Washington's previous gestures of conciliation. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had made a similar statement Wednesday.

The message seemed to be finding a receptive audience among the Chinese, although officials on both sides emphasized that the impasse was far from resolved.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin also took a conciliatory tone, referring to the collision, which his government previously blamed on the U.S. pilot, as "an accident," the term Washington has used from the start. He seemed to suggest that something short of an outright apology might be acceptable.

"I have visited many countries, and I see that when people have an accident, the two groups involved ... always say, `Excuse me,'" Jiang said in Chile on the first stop of a trip through Latin America.

Other Chinese officials also toned down their rhetoric.

U.S. statements of regret "were responded [to] very favorably in China," said a Chinese diplomat in Washington.

Both sides appeared intent on ending the standoff as soon as possible as high-level meetings, which White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described as "negotiations," continued in Washington and Beijing.

While earlier in the week the dialogue consisted of pointed allegations hurled in public, the parties yesterday directed their energy into intensive, behind-the-scenes exchanges.

"The processes have improved. Communications have improved," said Iowa Rep. Jim Leach, chairman of the House Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, who was briefed on the impasse by Powell.

Powell has taken a personal approach to the problem, dispatching a letter Wednesday to Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen, whom Powell met in Washington two weeks ago.

U.S. officials declined to confirm reports that the letter proposed a series of steps for resolving the stalemate, including the exchange of "explanations" for the crash and consultations on how to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Meanwhile, the 24-member crew of the Navy EP-3E surveillance plane remained at a guesthouse at a Chinese air base on the island of Hainan, with no further contact with U.S. envoys since a 40-minute meeting on Tuesday.

Bush sidestepped a question about whether it would be appropriate for the crew to be interviewed by Chinese authorities, as they have claimed a right to do, while Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, termed that prospect "disturbing."

However, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, played down the Chinese probe. "I don't think we have a set process that covers the unusual set of circumstances we have here," he said. "I don't think it would be a big surprise that the crew of the EP-3 would be interviewed."

Pentagon officials said four days ago that the Chinese F-8 jet was flying under the Navy plane before the accident, but they would not comment yesterday on reports that the U.S. plane banked left, as the Chinese have alleged.

"We are just not in as good a position as the aircrew themselves ... to understand what happened," Quigley said.

Several members of the Senate intelligence committee said the Chinese pilot, who is presumed dead and is being hailed as a national hero in China, was a known "hot dog" who regularly flew too close to U.S. surveillance planes.

"The pilot involved is apparently the same pilot who's been observed by our reconnaissance aircraft in the past," said Lugar. "It appears to me on this occasion he simply exceeded his grasp."

There are lingering questions on Capitol Hill about why the Navy pilot, identified by the Pentagon as Lt. Shane Osborn, 26, of Norfolk, Neb., chose to land in China rather than ditch the plane in the water. U.S. officials worry that the plane's secret surveillance and eavesdropping equipment might have fallen into Chinese hands.

Pentagon officials said ditching in the water was standard procedure during the Cold War. Now, the safety of the crew is considered paramount.

"There was no choice between a Pentium 3 and a petty officer 3," said Adm. Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations.

Some officials praised the pilot for being able to land the crippled aircraft, which plummeted 8,000 feet after the collision.

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