How to be, in a word, diplomatic with China

April 07, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

If there were a Miss Manners for diplomatic etiquette, she might be fielding this question about now:

Dear MM,

Our Air Force was recently spying on some old adversaries when one of their pilots got a little frisky and bumped our plane in the nose. Their pilot bailed out and hasn't been seen since. Our plane had to make an emergency landing, but the nearest air strip was in their country. Now they're blaming us for everything and demanding an apology before they'll free our 24 crew members. Although we're sorry about their pilot, we're not about to apologize, and we want the plane and crew returned immediately. Any ideas?


Befogged in Foggy Bottom

It's a tough question for sure, the sort that makes diplomats and foreign service instructors squirm over exactly how to proceed. In this kind of standoff, generally neither side is satisfied until there is a solution allowing each to claim victory.

And that isn't possible without taking great care with what is and isn't said along the way.

"Words mean a lot in intense situations," says William A. Rugh, a former ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.

But, so far, no one has invented any words for apology better than "We're sorry for what we did," which, in this case, U.S. diplomats refuse to utter.

"The United States does not want to appear, both out of conviction and out of political necessity, to be apologizing to the Chinese, but also realizes that the Chinese have now boxed themselves into a hole [by demanding an apology]," says Casimir A. Yost, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, and an authority on U.S.-China relations.

"What you see now," Yost says, "is an effort on our part to help the Chinese out of the hole with the use of words like `regret.' Of course, at the end of the day the Chinese have to be satisfied, for their own domestic political reasons, that they've gotten all they're going to get out of this. ... They don't want to be perceived as bowing to American pressure."

This helps explain why Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed his regret on one day, then President George W. Bush expressed his on the next. What might have seemed to the layman to be mere repetition was, in diplomatic terms, a raising of the stakes of American regret.

"Having the president offer re- grets is pretty much different in their eyes," says former ambassador Robert R. Pelletreau, an Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in the Clinton administration. "You may even have people on their side now saying, `Look what we were able to get.' "

In this kind of climate, precise language is at a premium.

"The U.S. side has been quite careful, not only using words like regret, but avoiding use of words like hostage," Pelletreau says. "They're both aimed at giving the other side some reasonable ground."

This isn't always the case, of course. Even the trickiest and most tense diplomatic standoffs sometimes call for ambiguity, and in those instances the imprecision of translation occasionally offers a way out of a crisis.

Consider the case of United Nations Resolution 242, an attempt to patch things up in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Israeli army captured, among other territory, all of the divided city of Jerusalem plus most Arab land west of the Jordan River.

"The English version of the resolution says Israel must withdraw from `lands' occupied in June 1967," Yost says. "The French attach a `Le' [`The'] to lands."

The French version lets the Arab side claim that the resolution calls for a return of all lands, while the English one lets Americans favor a more lenient interpretation.

Leaders and diplomats must also take cultural and historical sensitivities into account before opening their mouths.

"Scratch any contemporary Chinese and they will talk about a history of humiliation that goes back to the 18th century," Yost says. "There are periods of being occupied and humiliated by foreigners, a historical experience which adds an additional layer to the sensitivity.

"It's how we end up talking past each other when we lecture them about human rights."

It also doesn't help that the United States mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia two years ago. An entire series of formal apologies ensued, and rightfully so, the experts say.

Further weighting words in the current standoff are domestic political considerations, and not just in the case of a new U.S. president trying to prove himself. In China, much of the old guard is preparing to step aside next year.

"Everybody [in China] is feeling their way in this intermittent period," Yost says. "Quick decisions are just not in the cards."

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