U.S., China work on end to standoff

Embassy officials meet with crew detained on island

Bush's position `unchanged'

Nations' relationship seen as too important for incident to derail

April 08, 2001|By Frank Langfitt and Tom Bowman | Frank Langfitt and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

BEIJING - As two U.S. officials met with the crew of a crippled spy plane for a third time early today, China's top diplomat reiterated that American statements of regret about a downed Chinese jet fighter were "unacceptable."

With U.S. and Chinese officials continuing to work on a face-saving solution to the weeklong standoff, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen insisted that the United States make a full apology for the collision April 1 between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy spy plane.

"Regrettably, the U.S. statement on this incident so far is unacceptable to the Chinese side, and the Chinese people have found it most dissatisfying," Qian said in a letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Friday, which China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported yesterday. "The U.S. side should take up its responsibilities for the incident."

Qian's letter came in reply to one from Powell earlier in the week in which the secretary said: "We very much regret the pain this accident has caused. President Bush is very concerned about your missing pilot."

Although Washington has expressed regret for the loss of the jet and pilot, it has refused to apologize for the crash. Asked about Qian's letter yesterday, the White House did not budge.

"Our position is unchanged," said Mary Ellen Countryman, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Meanwhile, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy military attache, met for an hour with the 24 detained American crew members on Hainan Island and said they were in "very high spirits."

"They understand the circumstances under which they are here," Sealock said. "And I was able to validate again their treatment, their care, their spirits, their wellness. They're all doing well. They are looking forward to going home." State Department officials in Washington said there was no word on when another meeting with the crew would take place.

But Sealock said the United States is pushing for "unfettered access" twice daily.

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher met with two Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing yesterday, and more meetings are expected today. "We are in contact, and we are still very hard at work," Prueher said.

A State Department official in Washington said there were no high-level meetings with Chinese diplomats yesterday in Washington, though talks were expected to resume. Richard L. Armitage, the No. 2 official at the State Department, met three times last week with China's ambassador, Yang Jiechi. "We're in intensive negotiations with the Chinese government," the official said. "We're not finished yet. The situation has not been resolved."

As the dispute entered its seventh day, though, rhetoric on both sides showed considerable softening since the two aircraft collided in international airspace over the South China Sea. The damaged U.S. plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island.

In the days after the crash, Bush warned that U.S.-Chinese relations could be undermined if the plane and crew were not promptly returned. Chinese officials questioned the crew and said the plane had violated Chinese sovereignty. But Pentagon and other U.S. officials insisted that the Navy EP-3 Aries II plane was in international airspace on a routine surveillance mission.

Yesterday, in a sign that the Chinese government was trying to calm the nationalistic outrage of its people, China's state-run press reported Bush's words of regret. A State Department official noted that Bush and Powell have mentioned progress and movement in talks with the Chinese. "What we're seeing [in the Chinese press] is perhaps a reflection of that," he said.

That the conflict has shifted from tough talk to the nuances of what constitutes an apology is a sign that leaders in Beijing and Washington have begun to face political reality. Regardless of who was at fault, the relationship is too important to be derailed by a plane crash - even one involving military aircraft.

From the future of Taiwan to the jailing of political dissidents, China and the United States disagree on many issues. At the same time, the nations are bound by growing economic ties and a common interest in a peaceful and prosperous Asia.

Although either nation could ignore or defy the other, a combative policy would come at a price. The United States is one of China's top trading partners and the destination each year for millions of goods stamped "Made in China." China-U.S. trade topped $74 billion last year. Exports to the United States accounted for about $52 billion, according to Chinese statistics.

Although the United States is not as reliant on China economically, many American businesses see the nation's market of 1.3 billion potential consumers as the brass ring of the global economy. Drive along Beijing's boulevards and it is impossible to miss the signs for Motorola, McDonald's, Starbucks, Nike and KFC.

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