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U.S. Offers 'Sorrow' for Pilot, Adds Warnings

China: Need to return spy plane's crew is stressed. Bush answers letter from downed airman's wife.

April 09, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT and HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As the standoff with China entered its second week Sunday, the Bush administration offered its first expressions of "sorrow" but coupled them with several warnings about the consequences of detaining the 24-member crew of a U.S. surveillance plane any longer.

The White House also revealed that President Bush had written a letter to the widow of a missing Chinese pilot--Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei of the Chinese navy, now presumed dead after his fighter jet collided with the U.S. plane April 1--in response to a letter she wrote to Bush last week. The letter from Ruan Guoqin had charged that the president was "too cowardly to voice an apology."

Bush's response was a personal communication and a "humanitarian" gesture "in an American way to a widow who is grieving," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on "Fox News Sunday." "Whatever you think about the politics of it, she's lost her husband."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that the letter was "unrelated" to efforts to win the release of the two dozen Americans detained on China's southern island of Hainan, where their plane made an emergency landing after the midair collision. The letter was expected to be sent overnight through diplomatic channels.

But news of Bush's letter came on the same day that Powell for the first time used the word "sorry" to describe American reaction to Wang's apparent death.

"We've expressed our regrets, we've expressed our sorrow, and we are sorry that a life was lost. The only life lost at this point was that of a Chinese pilot. And so I think it's a very proper thing to express our regrets and sorrow over that," Powell said on the Fox Network program.

Still, along with a string of other senior officials who appeared on Sunday talk shows, Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly deemed a formal apology by the Bush administration for the collision to be out of the question. The issue of apology is "something quite different" because it would mean accepting official responsibility for the accident, Powell said.

"We have not done, can't do, and therefore won't apologize for that," he added.

Meanwhile, the Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of China's military, restated Beijing's assertion that it has a right to question the detained crew and inspect the hobbled EP-3, a sophisticated surveillance plane that could provide China with a bonanza of U.S. intelligence information.

"China has the right to make a comprehensive and thorough investigation of the entire incident, including the people in charge of the plane and the plane itself," the newspaper said in an editorial.

It also said that "the U.S. government should bear full responsibility for causing the incident and make an explanation and apology to the Chinese government and Chinese people, and immediately stop all the military surveillance activity along the Chinese coastline."

The newspaper added that the U.S. should give compensation to the Chinese side. Its unyielding stance fueled speculation that the Chinese military, which is extremely distrustful of the U.S., is holding out for a harder line in Beijing's talks with Washington for a resolution of the standoff.

Powell's use of the word "sorrow" and the revelation of the Bush letter might have been an attempt to prod those negotiations.

With the talks moving far more slowly than Washington had hoped, Powell acknowledged barriers that have impeded the negotiations, which over the weekend took place only in Beijing.

On Sunday afternoon, U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph W. Prueher met with Chinese Foreign Ministry officials. U.S. Embassy officials did not say what that exchange entailed, although Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Bush are said to be reviewing a joint letter of understanding about the midair crash.

"There are some zigs and zags, and there are still some exchanges of views that would suggest we're at loggerheads. But I am confident we'll be able to get around these barriers. How quickly, I don't know," Powell said on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," the second of two talk shows he appeared on Sunday.

For the first time, he also suggested publicly that tensions and rivalries within China had slowed negotiations.

The Bush administration also warned Sunday that U.S.-China relations are experiencing a new "fragility." Beijing is already facing a backlash in Congress, among American businesses and in public opinion.

"I don't want to put a timetable on it, [but] every day that goes by without having it resolved raises the risks to the long-term relationship," Cheney said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."

"The relationship is being damaged," said Powell, who described being contacted by businesses and congressional officials about redefining the bilateral relationship and canceling visits. "In order for the damage to be undone and for no further damage to occur, we've got to bring this matter to a close as soon as possible."

If the drama drags on for an additional two weeks, until Congress returns from a recess, Powell predicted, there will be "outrage and concern" about the state of U.S.-China relations that could spark specific action.

That action could come on any of several issues, including the impending annual sale of arms to Taiwan, Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games and U.S. renewal of Beijing's most-favored-nation trading status. All are facing an increasingly hostile reception, Powell said.

He also said that the United States will not be deterred from future reconnaissance flights over international waters near China, a practice that dates back decades.

"Our reconnaissance flights--when we fly them, how we will fly them, over international airspace, in international airspace over international water--will be something that the United States government will decide," he declared.

*

Wright reported from Washington and Chu from Beijing.

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