U.S., China likely to heal rift, though bitterness could linger

Taiwan, allegations of abuse add obstacles

April 15, 2001|By Frank Langfitt and Jay Hancock | Frank Langfitt and Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF WRITERS

BEIJING -- In the aftermath of this month's standoff over a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane, Washington and Beijing face the daunting task of repairing a critical international relationship already marked by distrust and rivalry.

As the countries confront a variety of sensitive issues in the next days and weeks, there are indications that bitterness on both sides is unlikely to subside soon and may continue to color the relationship for some time.

Yesterday, the Chinese government angrily described as "irresponsible" the statements by senior U.S. officials that a Chinese fighter jet, and not a U.S. spy plane, caused the collision April 1. A spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry warned of "further damages" to Chinese-American relations, according to the New China News Agency.

An atmosphere of acrimony could influence or exacerbate coming issues, the most sensitive of which is President Bush's decision this month on whether to sell destroyers to China's rival, Taiwan.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian urged Washington yesterday to sell his country the high-tech weapons, saying advanced arms can help it maintain a crucial military balance with China. Chen made the remarks to members of a U.S. congressional delegation that arrived in Taipei after canceling a scheduled visit to China amid the standoff over the collision.

In addition to Taiwan, other potential flash points await. Last week, the United States introduced a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva criticizing Beijing for the torture and killing of members of Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritual meditation group, as well as abuse of Tibetans and political dissidents.

With China's potential entry into the World Trade Organization unresolved, Congress may vote again this summer on granting the country permanent normal trade relations, providing critics another forum in which to bash Beijing.

Back on the offensive

After Wednesday night's release of 24 U.S. Navy aircrew members in exchange for a letter of regret from the United States, there was no sign of a truce between the world's only superpower and its closest potential rival. Immediately afterward, both sides were back on the offensive, pressing their cases with pointed words.

Chinese officials said the dispute over the collision was far from over. They reiterated their demands that America halt spy flights along China's coast, an issue they are certain to raise in meetings with U.S. officials scheduled to begin Wednesday.

The meeting, which was agreed to in the letter, will try to address the cause of the collision between the U.S. spy craft and the Chinese jet, ways to avoid such collisions and the return of the crippled EP-3 spy plane, which American officials say the Chinese military is ransacking.

During remarks Thursday about the returning aircrew, Bush rebuked Beijing for its decision to hold the crewmen captive in what many observers saw as an attempt to blackmail the United States into issuing an apology for a crash it has denied causing. "China's decision to prevent the return of our crew for 11 days is inconsistent with the kind of relationship we have both said we wish to have," Bush said.

In Beijing, the bitterness among some U.S. officials is palpable.

"We're upset with the whole situation," said one American diplomat, who added that military ties between the two countries -- which are supposed to help prevent problems such as the collision and stalemate -- will be suspended for at least the next six months.

Despite the raw nerves and the tough agenda ahead, some analysts see opportunities for improved ties to emerge. They also hope that China's and America's up-and-down relationship will show its historical elasticity and bounce back soon.

But how quickly the relationship rights itself will depend on several factors, including how quickly anger dissipates and how hard and how effectively conservatives in both countries use the spy plane episode to press their agendas.

In China, President Jiang Zemin must contend with the perception that he caved in to the United States.

After repeatedly demanding an apology as an implicit condition for the release of the aircrew, Jiang had to settle for a letter in which the United States said it was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese plane, pilot Wang Wei and the U.S. plane's landing in Chinese territory without permission.

Although China's state-run news media have declared the U.S. expressions of regret a major victory, many people on the streets of Beijing aren't fooled. Opponents of closer U.S.-Chinese ties may use the episode to push Jiang into adopting a tougher stance against Washington.

Conservatives "will target the current leaders," said a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who asked that his name not be used. "They will try to increase the resentment of the average people to criticize the leaders here as too weak."

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