Bush offers personal regrets as talks gain steam
WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States and China intensified negotiations Thursday for the release of an American spy plane’s crew, and U.S. officials said they were encouraged by the talks. President Bush, in a conciliatory gesture, expressed regret over the in-flight collision that triggered the tense standoff.
”The Chinese have got to act,” Bush said, ”I hope they do so quickly.”
China called the 24-person crew lawbreakers and said the servicemen and women would remain in China for questioning.
Both countries held firm to their opposing positions in public – China demanding an apology, Bush refusing to offer one – but sent encouraging signals in a diplomatic flurry. The administration’s tone brightened as weary Bush advisers embraced the first notes of progress.
Several high-ranking government officials said the situation improved practically overnight, though they still had no assurances the crew of 21 men and three women would be released.
While most Americans slept, Bush’s team worked on China time Thursday morning to open new channels of communications with Beijing. The talks continued as dawn made its way around the globe: Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi met with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in Washington; U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher met twice with Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong in China.
”We’re having intensive discussions with the Chinese,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Frustrated for days by the lack of talks, American diplomats were suddenly negotiating with Chinese counterparts over U.S. demands for release of the crew members, who were being detained on the island of Hainan.
In Hainan’s capital, Haikou, Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy defense attache, confirmed that high-level talks aimed at gaining the crew’s release were under way.
”We are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to see the crew again,” he said Friday morning local time. ”We are pressing for access to the entire crew. We are also obviously looking for the immediate release of the entire crew and the aircraft.”
Sealock said the team of seven U.S. diplomats waiting in Haikou had confirmed that care packages of books, toiletries and U.S.-style snacks had been delivered to the crew.
Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, said on his arrival at work at the U.S. Embassy Friday, ”We are looking forward to a very hard working and productive day today.”
Asked if he had spoken to the spy plane’s crew, Prueher said, ”We’re working on that and expect to do so today.”
The U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet, forcing the American crew into an emergency landing on Hainan island in the South China Sea. The crew are being questioned and detained. The plane and its sensitive equipment are in China’s hands.
The Chinese pilot, presumed dead, was blamed for the crash by Bush’s allies in Congress. They called the pilot a ”hot-dog” and accused him of buzzing the lumbering spy plane under standing orders by Beijing.
Bush was more conciliatory in a statement calculated to show sympathy without bowing to China’s demands for an apology. ”I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret one of their airplanes is lost, and our prayers go out to the pilot, his family,” Bush told the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
In using the word ”regret,” Bush followed the language used by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials Wednesday in hopes of softening China’s stance.
China welcomed the American expressions but stuck with its demand for an apology, displaying the same mixture of encouragement and toughness Bush sought to show.
”The regret expressed by the U.S. side is a step in the right direction to solving this question,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi before Bush spoke. The next step, Sun said, is for the United States to ”admit its mistakes and make a formal apology.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer reiterated that no apology was forthcoming.
In another display of firmness, the spokesman suggested that Bush’s support of free trade relations with China will depend on the outcome of the standoff. Bush himself told the newspaper editors that he backs China’s wishes to join the World Trade Organization, but he added: ”I’m hopeful that the current situation ends quickly.”
On Capitol Hill, fans and foes of China’s new normal trade status said Congress shouldn’t rush to punish Beijing.
It was clear, though, there was limited patience for China’s actions. ”We’re not without remedies, some of them harsh,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. ”Every hour, every day that they keep these people against their will. Basically, they’re hostages.”
Powell privately briefed members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on developments late Thursday.
China kept the pressure on Bush by taking a tougher line against the servicemen. ”The U.S. crew violated international law,” Sun said.
”They have caused this air collision incident and they also entered illegally into China’s airspace,” he said. ”It is fully natural for competent authorities in China to question them about this incident.”
A senior U.S. official said the Chinese had questioned the American crew. The White House, perhaps hoping to avoid inflaming the Chinese, did not lodge a public protest.
China, too, seemed to want to rein in public anger over the incident. The government quashed a small protest outside the U.S. Embassy.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley told reporters at the Pentagon that it was not possible to know how much sensitive information or equipment might have been lost to the Chinese until U.S. officials have had a chance to question the crew in detail.
At the White House, Bush and his advisers kept their remarks to a minimum. Behind the scenes, Armitage emerged as the main go-between with the Chinese in Washington.
Bush, who is usually asleep by 10 p.m., met well past his bedtime Wednesday night with Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
In his session with editors, Bush promised to use ”all diplomatic channels” to get the crew members released, though advisers said he did not think the time was right to personally call Chinese leaders. ”The message to the Chinese is we should not let this incident destabilize relations,” Bush said.
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