Beijing talks on spy plane unsuccessful

U.S. envoys agree to meet again today

April 19, 2001|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BEIJING - After one afternoon of failed talks with China's government over the return of an American spy plane, U.S. negotiators agreed to return to the table today, but only after threatening to break off discussions unless the Chinese agreed specifically to talk about the fate of the airplane.

With the first meeting apparently having accomplished little more than the two sides exchanging accusations, a second day of talks was put on hold until U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher could meet this morning in Beijing with Chinese officials to insist that China show a willingness to return the aircraft if any further talks were to take place.

More than an hour after Prueher's meeting, a member of the U.S. negotiating team said that "based on an understanding" with China, the two sides would meet again today and that the fate of the plane would be included on the agenda.

Yesterday's scheduled meetings in Beijing, the first forum between the United States and China over the stranded spy plane since China's release of the 24 crew members last week, had been expected to be tense because so much has been left unresolved and so many bitter feelings remain.

The sides had agreed to talks about the spy plane incident, including the return of the plane, as part of the deal to release the Americans.

But according to U.S. government accounts of the first meeting, the discussion never got past the repetition of each side's view of who was responsible for the collision April 1 between an American EP-3E surveillance aircraft and a Chinese jet fighter. The Chinese fighter crashed, and the severely damaged EP-3E made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island, where it remains.

After 2 1/2 hours, the U.S. side decided that "we're not talking about anything" and ended the meeting, according to a senior Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S.-China relations have always been colored by deep mistrust and occasional open political conflict, and the spy plane incident has become a test for the Bush administration on whether the sides can reach accommodations over difficult issues.

At stake is the short-term direction of a complex relationship in which the two countries have enjoyed remarkable growth in trade and investment but continue to spar over issues such as human rights and China's aggressive designs on reclaiming Taiwan.

On the day of the failed meeting, China was able to thwart a U.S. initiative at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to criticize China, while the two sides face another potential conflict next week when the United States is expected to announce its annual arms sales to Taiwan.

Against this backdrop, as well as the new administration's generally tougher posture on China, negotiations over the plane seemed bound to be tense.

Certainly part of the U.S. decision to threaten a walkout represented an attempt to dramatize to Beijing the importance Washington puts on the symbolic return of the $80 million aircraft. The aircraft is packed with electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking technology and has almost certainly been taken apart and inspected by the Chinese.

Both sides have stuck to their contradictory version of events in the skies over the South China Sea, with China apparently not giving an inch in asserting that the U.S. plane rammed the fighter jet. The government repeats its accusations and has lionized the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei, as a "revolutionary martyr," playing to strong nationalistic sentiments that could complicate any attempt at compromise.

China has insisted all along, without providing evidence, that the U.S. plane rammed the fighter. The United States maintains, and has given minute-by-minute accounts of the accident, that the Chinese fighter hit the surveillance plane while shadowing it.

The United States says the heavily damaged American plane, in danger of crashing, signaled mayday and headed for the nearest airport, which was on Hainan. China contends it never heard a mayday and accuses the United States of violating Chinese airspace and landing illegally. It has kept the plane under the guise of investigating the incident.

The scheduled two days of meetings over the fate of the plane were agreed to in the letter delivered to China on April 11 that led immediately to the release of the 24 Americans. The letter stated that the United States was "very sorry" about the death of the Chinese fighter pilot in the collision and for the fact that the Navy plane entered Chinese airspace during its emergency landing without approval, but the United States has refused to give a formal apology.

The letter said the United States and China would meet April 18 to discuss related issues, including the cause of the accident, the return of the aircraft, how to avoid future collisions and China's concerns about surveillance flights.

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