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STANDOFF WITH CHINA: U.S. AIRCRAFT HELD

U.S. Offers Regrets Over Chinese Pilot's Fate in Collision

Diplomacy: Secretary of State Powell's words, spoken after Beijing noted an American failure to 'take responsibility' for the incident, stop short of an apology.

April 05, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT and HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other U.S. officials Wednesday issued a chorus of regrets over the apparent death of a Chinese pilot in a collision with a U.S. surveillance plane, signaling the opening of a diplomatic dance designed to address Beijing's demand for an apology without explicitly offering one.

"We regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot, but now we need to move on," Powell told reporters.

He also expressed regret that the Chinese F-8 fighter jet was unable to land safely, as the U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane did, after the "tragic accident." The Chinese aircraft crashed into the South China Sea; its pilot is missing.

Powell's statement appeared to be a response to a chastising earlier Wednesday from Beijing, which had raised the political temperature and the stakes in the standoff over Sunday's collision between the two aircraft.

As U.S. officials waited in vain for a second meeting with 24 crew members of the damaged reconnaissance plane, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan summoned U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher in Beijing for a pointed dressing-down.

The United States "did not face up to the reality or take responsibility" for the collision, Tang told Prueher, according to the official New China News Agency. On the contrary, Washington "has displayed an arrogant air, used lame arguments, confounded right and wrong and made groundless accusations against China," Tang reportedly said.

Before leaving for a scheduled tour of Latin America, Chinese President Jiang Zemin stipulated that an apology was required to open the way for resolution of the incident, which forced the EP-3 to make an emergency landing on Hainan island in southern China.

Prueher refused to give the apology. But Powell later took the tentative and subtly diplomatic step of expressing regret during a well-orchestrated press event after talks in Washington with Jordan's King Abdullah II. The secretary appeared to be seeking to ease tensions and find a middle ground on the language.

"As the fate of the Chinese pilot becomes clearer, we're saying probably more clearly that we understand and sympathize with the plight of the Chinese family and regret the loss of life of the Chinese pilot that apparently occurred," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

"So in some ways there's an evolution but not a breakthrough."

Similar language was echoed at the White House. The U.S. is "concerned" about missing Chinese pilot Wang Wei and expressed "regrets" about the midair incident, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said at a daily briefing.

Powell's comment was "a step in the right direction," said Zhang Yuan Yuan, Chinese Embassy press counselor. But Chinese officials said further steps were required.

U.S. officials refused to get into a semantic debate over whether "regret" was tantamount to an apology. And the White House continued to insist that it did not believe there was reason for an apology.

"Our airplanes are operating in international airspace, and the United States did nothing wrong," Fleischer said.

In trying to decipher the diplomatic language, a senior U.S. official said each country "has to be true to its own values" while searching for a resolution.

The Bush administration scrambled during the day to get the message across in as many ways as possible.

Powell formalized his expression of regret for the apparent loss of the Chinese pilot in a letter to Vice Premier Qian Qichen, which he gave to Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi during a 30-minute meeting late Wednesday at the State Department. The letter also discusses the need to find ways to resolve the issue.

Although Yang requested the meeting, he did not offer new proposals or an official reaction to Powell's earlier overture.

The U.S. expects a continuation of meetings between American and Chinese officials "rolling around the clock" in Beijing and Washington, a senior State Department official said late Wednesday. "Whether it moves forward or not, we still don't know."

In one bit of good news, the Pentagon said Wednesday that the crew indicated during its only meeting with U.S. diplomats on Hainan that it had been able to destroy some of the plane's highly sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment before the emergency landing.

Because the Tuesday meeting was monitored by the Chinese, U.S. diplomats do not have full details. The State Department on Wednesday called for "free and unfettered" access to the crew members--22 from the Navy, one from the Air Force and a Marine.

As a result of the first contact with the crew, Pentagon officials revealed Wednesday that the aftermath of the collision involved high drama, as the U.S. plane tumbled about 8,000 feet and had difficulty getting its wing flaps down. It took the pilot five minutes to stabilize the plane. There was extensive damage to two of four propellers and to the nose section, which holds sensitive radar equipment.

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