‘Diplomacy takes time’ – Bush cautions on China release
WASHINGTON – President Bush cautioned on Monday that the spy plane standoff may not end soon – ”diplomacy takes time” – and warned China that relations with the United States could suffer.
As the 9-day showdown threatened to become a political problem for Bush, U.S. diplomats met for a fourth time with the crew of a crippled EP-3E surveillance plane. The 21 men and three women were doing fine, the president reported, and administration officials said negotiations for their release were progressing.
Nonetheless, Beijing insisted anew Monday that Washington apologize and take responsibility for the spy plane’s collision with a Chinese fighter jet before dawn April 1 Chinese time. The White House said neither demand was warranted, as frustration grew over the slow pace of talks.
”Diplomacy takes time,” Bush told reporters before a Cabinet meeting about his plans for the federal budget. ”But there is a point – the longer it goes – there’s a point at which our relations with China could become damaged.”
Bush, who has issued similar warning to Beijing before, broke new ground with the diplomacy-takes-time formulation. Advisers said it was a plea for patience aimed at conservatives who ratcheted up their anti-China rhetoric over the weekend and began to question his handling of the situation.
The president also hoped to prepare the public for the possibility of protracted negotiations. Polls show voters support Bush’s performance on China, but senior Republicans close to him said the good will could evaporate if the standoff continues much longer.
Bush himself set high expectations a week ago Tuesday when he told China ”it is time for our servicemen and women to return home” and again Friday when he reported ”we’re making progress” in negotiations.
Many of his own advisers had said they believed the 24-member crew would be released over the weekend.
Instead, China increased its hard-line rhetoric. ”Where is the responsibility? I think it’s very clear,” said Zhu Bangzao, a senior foreign ministry official traveling with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Argentina.
”The United States should apologize and respond appropriately,” Zhu said at a Buenos Aires news conference. ”If they don’t, it’s going to make things difficult. If they do, it’s going to help resolve the problem.”
Photos of the plane taken by a commercial satellite company show what appear to be several trucks lined up nearby – a sign some analysts say indicates that the Chinese military is taking the aircraft apart for study.
Bush has refused to apologize, though he expressed regret Friday for the loss and presumed death of the pilot. Similar sentiments were contained in a weekend letter from Bush to the pilot’s wife, officials said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday the administration was ”sorry” for the pilot’s loss – the closest the United States has come to an apology. China gave no direct reaction to Powell’s statement Monday.
American diplomats were seeking a way to express sympathy to the satisfaction of China without an outright apology. The United States has also proposed having a commission determine the cause of the crash.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. diplomats were ”at a sensitive moment,” and administration officials said Washington and Beijing had exchanged several drafts of a proposal aimed at ending the standoff but had been unable to come to an agreement.
A senior administration official, briefed on the talks, said negotiations were slowly moving closer to a way to release the crew. Another said advances were minuscule Monday, after rapid progress late last week.
It is hard to gauge when or how a resolution will come, several officials said, because the picture is clouded by the split between political and military leaders in Beijing.
”We’re working behind the scenes,” Bush said, joined by his national security advisers. ”We’ve got every diplomatic channel open. We’re in discussions with the Chinese. It is now time for our troops to come home so that our relationship does not become damaged.”
He carefully measured his words, twice repeating the warning to Beijing while skating past reporters’ questions about his options.
The president was not specific about potential harm to U.S.-Chinese relations, but his advisers noted for a second straight day that support for continuing normal trade relations with China was eroding in Congress.
They said the standoff also could affect the U.S. position on selling sophisticated destroyers to Chinese rival Taiwan; the future of U.S. military exchanges; Bush’s scheduled trip to Beijing this fall and the administration’s position on China hosting the 2008 Olympic Games
Several lawmakers have canceled trips to China because of the dispute. Republicans are particularly hawkish toward China.
The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine read by many of Bush’s supporters, said in a weekend editorial titled ”A National Humiliation” that the administration had shown weakness in its response to China.
Among Democrats, Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey asked ”whether it is appropriate to have both an ambassador and hostages in the same country.”
Administration officials said they hoped the congressional recess that began Monday would help ease the political pressure on Bush by keeping most lawmakers out of the national spotlight.
Hoping to lower emotions, the White House stressed reports that the crew was being fed and clothed well while housed in air-conditioned quarters on Hainan island in the South China Sea.
The diplomats met the crew with no Chinese officials present, though they worked on the assumption that the conversations were being monitored by Beijing, U.S. officials said.
That is one reason why the conversations in the four meeting have focused on the well-being of the crew and mundane issues – Sealock told the crew Monday that Tiger Woods won the Masters golf tournament – but not more sensitive matters.
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