U.S., China head into talks taking equally hard lines

Concessions appear difficult to grant as negotiations open

April 18, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEIJING - With tensions high before negotiations today, the Chinese and U.S. governments indicated no willingness to budge on the major issues surrounding the midair collision of a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter this month.

In announcements yesterday before the meeting, neither side mentioned the concern most important to the other. That might not bode well for the talks - which are expected to last several days.

Foremost on the minds of the eight members of the American team - including six military officers or Pentagon officials - will be return of the crippled $80 million EP-3E surveillance plane. At the top of China's agenda is for the United States to end surveillance flights near its borders.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue did not include the return of the plane when she outlined China's agenda for today's negotiations. She said the talks would focus on the cause of the collision and how future accidents could be prevented, as well as on China's insistence that the United States stop conducting surveillance flights near its coast.

Zhang repeated the government's assertion that the United States was entirely to blame for the incident because it should not conduct surveillance flights close to China's border.

She did not rule out discussions on the return of the plane. But she said the plane's fate would be determined by the outcome of China's investigation of the collision.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing issued a news release that did not mention China's demand that surveillance flights end. It said the talks would cover the cause of the incident, how to avoid collisions and the return of the U.S. plane.

The American team would be looking for "an indication of Chinese seriousness in addressing these issues" and of China's willingness to deal with its relations with the United States "in a serious and productive manner," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington. "So we'll see what they are prepared to address, and draw, I think, our own conclusions about how they intend to proceed with this relationship."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the U.S. team also would ask "tough questions" about the way China had been using increasingly aggressive means of intercepting American reconnaissance aircraft.

U.S. officials said the reconnaissance flights, which had been suspended since the collision, would resume, possibly today.

Beijing's near-deification of its missing pilot, Wang Wei, will make it difficult for its negotiating team to agree to anything resembling a concession to the United States.

U.S. officials are not likely to make concessions, either, since Washington has maintained that the United States did nothing wrong.

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