WASHINGTON - Right after a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided over the South China Sea on April 1, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher told Beijing that "we're sorry" for the loss of China's aircraft.
Yesterday, Prueher told Beijing "we are very sorry" for the apparent death of the Chinese pilot and for landing the damaged reconnaissance plane on China's Hainan Island without permission from airport authorities.
The ambassador's statements were separated in time by 10 days but in meaning by only a pursed lip, perhaps, or a downturned eyebrow. Yet the difference was enough to trigger the release of 24 captive Americans and break an international stalemate.
Foreign policy analysts on both the left and the right give the Bush administration good grades for wriggling out of a situation that neither Beijing nor Washington wanted.
"Given that the Chinese held the most important cards - possession of the airplane and crew - this is as good as we could have gotten," said Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "In the end, we won, and we did it by making them win, too."
Some conservatives have blasted the administration for what they see as a humiliating obeisance to Beijing.
But once Bush and his aides decided last week that the main goal was the crew's release, analysts said, the only U.S. option was to engage in incrementally greater expressions of contrition, hoping that something more than "regret" but less than "apologize" would eventually be the magic words.
"Your real choices here were: take down Hainan Island, get those guys out of there and destroy the airplane, or come to some other resolution," said Larry Wortzel, former U.S. military attache in Beijing and a foreign affairs analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "I'm happy with the outcome."
Even so, many believe the resulting bruises in the relationship between Beijing and Washington will not soon be healed.
"China's behavior has damaged U.S.-Sino relations, not irreparably, but seriously," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "And the primary responsibility for repairing our relationship rests, as does responsibility for the incident, squarely on Beijing."
Each side had dug in its position by Tuesday, April 3, two days after the collision caused the loss of a Chinese jet fighter and pilot Wang Wei and required the American EP-3 spy plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan.
Beijing demanded a full-blown U.S. apology, saying that a sudden turn by the American pilot caused the accident and that the American plane's failure to obtain radio clearance before it landed was a violation of Chinese airspace.
The United States "should face the facts squarely, shoulder responsibility and apologize to the Chinese side," said Zhu Bangzao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Washington, just as firmly, refused, saying that Wang Wei and other Chinese pilots had a history of making close passes while tracking U.S. reconnaissance planes and that the crippled EP-3 had a right to land anywhere it was able.
"We have nothing to apologize for," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said April 3.
So the lines were drawn. And so they might have stayed for a long time but for some powerful incentives driving both nations to seek a resolution.
In both countries, relatively moderate leaderships wanted to keep the incident from further firing up conservatives and undermining executive power. Business leaders in each nation worried that a prolonged impasse would hurt commercial ties.
China had to be concerned about U.S. reprisals - an American campaign against Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics, for example, or further U.S. arming of Taiwan.
An important turning point came on Wednesday April 4. Having already expressed "regret" for the apparent loss of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, Powell sent a letter to China's senior foreign policy official, Qian Qichen, outlining the formula that eventually led to the crew's release eight days later.
Washington would issue a public letter bearing Prueher's signature and expressing U.S. regret for some aspects of the collision and its aftermath, Powell suggested. The two sides also would make provisions for meetings to discuss the collision and ways to avoid similar incidents.
Although Qian and other Chinese officials continued saying U.S. responses were inadequate, Washington got signals as the week went on that the Chinese would be receptive to the U.S. plan. Finding the right words was the challenge.
Washington was adamant about refusing to apologize, especially after Pentagon officials learned from the aircrew that the Chinese jet had buzzed the slower U.S. plane three times before clipping its left wing. But U.S. officials were comfortable expressing regret, which didn't imply fault or guilt. And they did so, first through Powell, then through Bush.