U.S. offers chorus of regrets, no apologies to China
WASHINGTON – The Bush administration offered Beijing a chorus of regrets but no apology for the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter. China, still detaining 24 American crew members, said it was a step in the right direction amid signs that both sides wanted a face-saving resolution.
President Bush, who issued a stern warning to Beijing a day earlier, had his advisers extend the olive branch Wednesday.
”We regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot but now we need to move on,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said. ”We need to bring this to a resolution, and we’re using every avenue available to us to talk to the Chinese side to exchange explanations and move on.”
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer echoed Powell’s remarks, saying, ”We have expressed our concern and our regrets about that incident,” but he declined China’s demand for an apology. In China, a similar regrets-but-no-apology formulation was offered to the nation’s foreign minister by the U.S. ambassador.
”The United States doesn’t understand the reason for an apology,” Fleischer said. ”Our airplanes are operating in international airspace, and the United States did nothing wrong.”
An apology would imply wrongdoing by the United States, officials said, something Bush has not been willing to concede.
A senior State Department official said Powell sent a letter to Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen stressing the importance the United States attaches to the release of the 24 Americans.
Powell handed the letter to Chinese Ambassador Yang Jeichi for transmittal to Qian. Powell told Yang the United States wanted full access to the crew and also emphasized the need to resolve the issue, the senior official said, asking not to be identified. Also attending the meeting was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Powell, in a little-noticed comment, had said Tuesday that the crash was ”fatal for the pilot of the Chinese plane and I regret that.”
But the remarks Wednesday were the administration’s most emphatic expressions of sympathy, designed to set the course for a middle ground that could lead to the crew’s release and allow both sides to escape dangerous diplomatic territory, officials said.
Since the first day of the standoff, the president has steadily increased rhetorical pressure on the Chinese while leaving room for a diplomatic settlement. Bush and his foreign policy team debated whether he needed to make a personal statement similar to Powell’s, but there were no plans for one as of Wednesday afternoon.
Despite the signs of progress, both sides held publicly to contradictory positions: China called itself the ”injured party” and blamed the United States for the crash while the White House called it an accident and Pentagon officials said the Chinese pilots buzzed the lumbering spy plane.
On Capitol Hill, the sister of 31-year-old detained Petty Officer Kenneth Richter said a carefully crafted apology might be in order.
”If it’s just a simple apology that’s going to get them back, then that should be fine,” said Barbara DiStefano of Staten Island, N.Y., before tying a yellow ribbon around an elm tree outside near the Senate chamber. ”But if it’s an apology with conditions, then the United States government has to decide what they’re going to do.”
Day 4 of the standoff began with Chinese President Jiang Zemin demanding an apology for the collision between the Navy EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance plane and a Chinese jet.
He also said the United States should ”do something favorable to the smooth development of China-U.S. relations,” a statement taken by administration officials as a sign that Beijing would welcome any act of contrition from the United States.
Their hopes were fueled shortly afterward when Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan echoed Jiang’s call for an apology in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher but also said China hoped to see the incident ”resolved as soon as possible” with China protecting its sovereignty and dignity.
Chinese Embassy press counselor Zhang Yuan Yuan called Powell’s remarks ”a step in the right direction.”
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration was looking for channels to open talks with the Chinese about the incident.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, publicly silent since the incident Sunday, issued a brief written statement Wednesday expressing relief that the crew were in good spirits and healthy. ”I hope and expect that their good treatment will continue,” said Rumsfeld, who had his weekly meeting with Bush on Wednesday.
As the two countries squared off over the fate of the crew, the husband of a U.S.-based political scientist arrested by China and charged with spying said she was a victim of souring U.S.-Chinese relations.
”I am pleading to both the U.S. and Chinese governments: Please do not put my wife and my family as a sacrifice for any political reasons,” Xue Donghua said in a statement. Gao Zhan, her husband and 5-year-old son were detained by China on Feb. 11.
In a sign of potential political fallout from the plane crash, a Republican lawmaker who opposed granting China permanent normal trade relations last year introduced a bill that would revoke the status.
”A favored trading partner with our country would follow proper protocol and not continue to hold our servicemen and women, along with our equipment, after being asked for their return,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
On the Net: Pacific Command: http://www.pacom.mil/
EP-3E Aries II squadron: http://www.naswi.navy.mil/vq-1/welcome.html
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