Plane talks show strains

United States, China heighten volleys on spy craft-jet collision

Relations `being damaged'

Bush prepares reply to wife of fighter pilot missing after crash

April 09, 2001|By Jay Hancock and Frank Langfitt | Jay Hancock and Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United States and China traded newly sharpened barbs yesterday as the dispute over a downed U.S. spy plane and crew showed signs of deteriorating into the kind of long-term standoff that President Bush has been struggling for a week to avoid.

As his advisers appeared on news shows yesterday to give the administration's views on the impasse, Bush was preparing a reply to a letter he received Friday from the wife of Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot who disappeared after the April 1 collision between his jet fighter and the Navy plane.

Wang's wife, Ruan Guoqin, accused Bush of defaming her husband and being "too cowardly" to apologize to the Chinese people for the incident. Bush's letter, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, was a move to "respond in a humanitarian way, in an American way, to a widow who is grieving."

Vice President Dick Cheney insisted yesterday that "we are making progress" in negotiations with Beijing for the return of the aircrew of 24, echoing the public optimism the administration has been expressing for several days.

But new progress was hard to detect, with Washington and Beijing seeming to show no signs of compromise as the impasse entered its second week.

In China, an assertion by the top military newspaper that Beijing had the right to "thoroughly investigate" the crew members added to perceptions that the military may be blocking attempts at a compromise.

And Powell suggested publicly for the first time that Beijing's behavior might make Congress balk at renewing favorable trade status with China, should such a vote become necessary.

"The relationship is being damaged," Powell told "Fox News Sunday." "In order for the damage to be undone and no further damage to occur, we've got to bring this matter to a close as soon as possible."

The confrontation began when the U.S. Navy spy plane and Chinese jet fighter collided in international airspace over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot is missing and presumed dead; the Navy plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island, where its crew was detained.

China, which contends the Navy plane swerved suddenly to cause the accident, demands a U.S. apology as an implicit condition for the release of the Americans. The United States, which has portrayed the missing Chinese pilot as a "hot dog" who often flew too close while monitoring U.S. flights, has expressed regret for the loss of the pilot but insists that it did nothing wrong and will not apologize.

Members of Congress were happy to confirm the possibility of rejecting favorable trade relations. Even Democrats and pro-business Republicans in Congress who generally back cordial relations with China are increasingly chafing at Beijing's refusal to free the U.S. aircrew.

"My inclination is to oppose it now," Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said of favorable trade relations with China. "I have supported it in the past, in the expectation that China would loosen its human rights abuses, would reduce them, and that things would improve. I don't see that happening at all. On the contrary, I see them exacerbated."

Hyde, who referred Saturday to the detained Americans as "hostages," spoke yesterday on CNN.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said that, although he favored renewing trade links with China, "certainly they've acted wrongly, and I think they've complicated their situation immensely just in the last week."

Last year, Congress approved permanent favorable trading relations with China, but the approval was contingent on Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization within a year. If Beijing doesn't accede to the WTO by June, Congress will have to vote on the matter again.

In China, a harshly worded, front-page editorial yesterday in Liberation Army Daily reiterated the government's demand for an apology and insisted that Washington end surveillance flights along China's coast.

The editorial came a day after China's defense minister, Chi Haotian, met with the wife of the missing pilot and said the U.S. could not "shirk responsibility" for the collision.

"It's impermissible for them to want to shirk responsibility," Chi was quoted as saying by Xinhua, China's official news service. "The People's Liberation Army does not agree to it, the Chinese people don't agree to it. The people of the world also won't agree to it."

Taken together, the editorial and the defense minister's words added to speculation that China's conservative military may be trying to prevent the nation's civilian leadership from resolving a dispute that neither country seems to have an interest in prolonging.

"In order to get the PLA's support, you have to talk tough," said Richard Baum, a political science professor from the University of California at Los Angeles who was visiting Beijing last week for a conference.

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