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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DELICATE MISSION TO CHINA

A U.S. envoy explains the embassy bombing

By Claire Macdonald and David Hsieh / Beijing


During an unplanned stopover in London last week, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen had a brief meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Britain's leader apologized for NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7. The moment was sealed with a photo opportunity of the pair smiling fondly at each other. If only things were as smooth for U.S. undersecretary of state Thomas Pickering, who met with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan three days later on June 16.

The latest turn in Sino-U.S. relations is being watched closely worldwide, as a deepening rift between the two nations could set back key trade and security issues. However, before Pickering could apologize for what Washington terms a "tragic accident," the Chinese seemed to have made up their minds. "The Americans will never admit that they deliberately bombed [the embassy]," says Guo Chun, a young Beijing journalist with access to the Internet and foreign news sites. "Whatever they say, it will be a shameless excuse."

Whether Pickering is the man for the job is also in question. "By dispatching a lower-ranking official, the U.S. is sending a sacrificial lamb," says Zhao Di, a senior majoring in Arabic at the Beijing Languages and Culture University. "There is no way he'll be able to give an adequate explanation." Armed with the U.S. position that NATO used outdated maps, Pickering could not have hoped for friendly photo calls any time soon.

Whether the error lay with the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, some American experts say the bombing is the result of an overly complex and outmoded intelligence bureaucracy. But the "obsolete-map" story is not credible to Chinese scholars, says Yang Dazhou, a retired senior fellow at the Academy of Social Sciences and China's top Balkans expert. "I have an old map [of Belgrade]. There was nothing at the site of the present Chinese embassy. But on the new map, the embassy is clearly marked. Why would the Americans bomb something that wasn't there?"

Just before Pickering's arrival, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official repeated Beijing's demand that the U.S. conduct a "thorough and responsible" probe and "punish the perpetrators." China also reserved the right to take further action if it is dissatisfied with U.S. findings. Will the Americans agree to any punishment? "The question of accountability will be addressed when we've finished our investigation," said a U.S. official. But it remains unclear if individuals will be named and chastised. "The Americans want to quietly hand over their report and China to accept it," says a senior analyst (and ex-diplomat to North America) at the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Institute of International Studies. "But the U.S. must publicize its findings. The people demand an explanation because there was loss of life." The Pickering team has indicated a willingness to discuss compensation for the three Chinese journalists killed in the attack.

If China is unhappy with the results of the U.S. investigation, security in the Asia-Pacific region could be affected. Chinese fears of U.S.-led "hegemony" have been intensified not only by NATO's air assault on Yugoslavia, but also by a recent strengthening of Washington's defense ties with Japan. One result may be a more assertive Chinese foreign policy. Beijing is playing a role in the Kashmir coflict between India and Pakistan, and has been stepping up contacts with other neighbors ranging from Russia to North Korea.

Like the Chinese, Pyongyang is worried that NATO's military intervention in a sovereign state could be replayed on its own doorstep. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has accepted an invitation to visit Beijing later this year. That comes on the heels of a trip there by Pyongyang's No. 2, Kim Yong Nam. Though the formal agenda featured talks on food relief for North Korea, Kim reportedly asked China for arms supplies. But Beijing, say insiders, denied the request as it did not wish to further inflame its ties with Washington.

In another conciliatory gesture, China abstained from voting on the United Nations motion authorizing peacekeeping forces in Kosovo. A Chinese veto would have torpedoed the West's peace plan and worsened tensions with NATO countries. The U.S. is also keen to get ties back on track. Says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "We have made very clear that we consider our relationship with China an important one that needs to get beyond this." Beijing is likely to want substantive amends to follow the U.S. apology. For Washington, they will not come easy, particularly in the wake of recent allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage. The world waits for a handshake.


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