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Special Event

President Bush Demands Immediate Return of U.S. Plane, Crewmembers

Aired April 3, 2001 - 4:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're also about a minute away from that statement we were telling you about that we're expecting President Bush to make from the Rose Garden in Washington, D.C. He is expected to comment on today's developments in China.

While we are waiting for him, we're going to go to John King, who is standing by now live at the White House. John, I think a lot of people are eager to find out about these conversations that took place with the U.S. crewmembers and the diplomats today.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kyra. CNN was told the president's first priority here is to reassure the American people that U.S. diplomats have assured the administration that those 24 crew members are indeed in good health and being treated well by the Chinese.

Every word of the president's statement that we're about to hear, though, carefully reviewed because the administration -- once again, we are told the president will call on the Chinese government to immediately release the crew and immediately release that U.S. surveillance plane.

But, again, we are told these words were chosen quite carefully because the president believes that the Chinese leadership needs a little bit more time. U.S. officials not explaining why the Chinese leadership would need more time, but there has been discussion that perhaps there's a bit of an internal struggle between the Chinese military and the Chinese political leadership.

I can tell you, though ,as we wait to the hear for the president, growing conversation from conservatives in the Congress today that if the Chinese government does not release that crew in the very near future, that the president should step up and do even more to bring about that release.

PHILLIPS: John, a lot of concern -- OK. It looks like the president is stepping up to the podium.

We will go ahead and listen in.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon.

I want to report to the American people, and especially to the families involved, that I've just talked with Brigadier General Sealock, who earlier today met with our 24 men and women in China. The general tells me they are in good health, they suffered no injuries and they have not been mistreated. I know this is a relief to their loved ones, and to all Americans.

Our crew members expressed their faith in America, and we have faith in them. They send their love to their families. They said they are looking forward to coming home, and we are looking forward to bringing them home.

This is an unusual situation in which an American military aircraft had to make an emergency landing on Chinese soil. Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident. We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing. But now it is time for our servicemen and -women to return home, and it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane.

This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries. To keep that from happening, our servicemen and -women need to come home.

Thank you very much.

PHILLIPS: A brief statement from President Bush. Let's bring in our John King back in at the White House. I guess that the best news that came from this, John, that the crew members have not been mistreated?

KING: That, the president's opening statement, but also Kyra, look at escalation of the president's words over the past 24 hours. Yesterday, and just earlier today, the president yesterday, Secretary of State Powell earlier today, saying he hoped a quick resolution of this would mean that the U.S.-China relationship could move on with no permanent damage.

But the president just saying now that there is a potential of long-term damage to the relationship if the Chinese government does not act now. The president said he was giving the Chinese government more time when he spoke yesterday, but noticed he said today it is now time for the Chinese government not only to release that crew, but to return the U.S. plane.

A growing concern among U.S. officials that the Chinese have boarded the plane, have perhaps removed equipment from the plane. A dispute, of sorts, conflicting information from the White House and the Pentagon. But the president's tone clearly changing from yesterday to today.

He opened with the good news. Those U.S. crewmembers are in good health and not being mistreated, he said, but very stern language there to the Chinese government and a very different tone than Mr. Bush had yesterday.

PHILLIPS: And the president, obviously, going to have to take a new approach to China. What do you foresee, John? What could be different here? KING: Well, it is the administration's hope, at least the president's hope and Secretary Powell's hope, that this could be resolved quickly, and that the administration could go on with what Mr. Bush has described as a realistic relationship with China. Mr. Bush said during the campaign, he had no romantic tendencies about this relationship.

That was the criticism of the Clinton administration. Mr. Bush saying he does not believe that this relationship has to be a sour one. While there will be competition over some things, Mr. Bush has long said that there could be an increased trade relationship and economic ties, cultural ties.

But there is growing sediment in the U.S. Congress -- for example, the president has to decide later this month just what U.S. military technology to sell to the government of Taiwan. This incident, only fueling the flames of those in the U.S. Congress who say Taiwan deserves the most sophisticated U.S. radar systems, deserves some new U.S. submarines. If the president were to approve that, we already know from comments out of Beijing there would be a loud protest from the Chinese government.

So, obviously this one episode has the potential, as the president just said, to carry over to the overall U.S.-China relationship.

PHILLIPS: John King live from the White House, thank you very much.

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