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U.S/China Standoff: China Announces U.S. Crew to be Released

Aired April 11, 2001 - 06:59   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We have had breaking news this morning: developments out of Beijing, China, as we learned that the White House is now confirming that state-run Chinese media reports that the crew of that U.S. spy plane will be released in the next few days.

Chinese television quotes the Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan telling the U.S. ambassador that the Chinese government has decided, out of humanitarian concerns, that the aircrew can leave the country after the necessary formalities.

You are looking at a live news conference now out of Hainan, China, where we are looking at Chinese official Chen Ci, who will be joined by Brigadier General Neal Sealock.

And at this point, we welcome our international viewers.


CHEN CI, CHINESE OFFICIAL: ... and destroying our Chinese military aircraft in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

The U.S. ambassador handed over a letter on behalf of the U.S. government, saying "very sorry" to the Chinese people for the incident. Upon receiving the letter, Minister Tang pointed out that the U.S. government must take full responsibility for the incident, provide convincing explanations to the Chinese people, stop its reconnaissance activities above the Chinese coast and take measures to stop the recurrence of such incidents.

Ambassador Prueher said in the letter that both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over China's missing pilot and aircraft. He said, on behalf of the U.S. government, that they were very sorry to the Chinese people and the family of pilot Wang Wei, and they were very sorry for the U.S. plane entering China's airspace and landing without a verbal clearance.

The U.S. has also expressed its appreciation to the China's effort to see to the well-being of the American crew. It must be pointed out that it is the sincere incident -- it is a serious incident that the U.S. military reconnaissance plane ran into and destroyed a Chinese military plane on the morning of April the 4th off the coast of China's Hainan Province, leading to the missing of the Chinese pilot, and entered China's airspace and landed at a Chinese airfield without permission. The U.S. plane intruded into China's territorial airspace and encroached upon China's sovereignty in violation of international law and the provisions of relevant laws of China, as well as consensus that China and the U.S. had reached last May on avoiding dangerous maritime military activities. This act have thus constitute a threat to China's national security. The U.S. side must take full responsibility for the incident.

It is entirely reasonable and legitimate for the Chinese side to ask for an apology to the Chinese people from the U.S. side.

Ever since the U.S. military reconnaissance plane ran into and destroyed our Chinese military plane, the Chinese side has, all along, handled this incident with calmness and restraint and in accordance with international law and the provisions of relevant laws of China. The competent departments in China have, out of humanitarian considerations, treated the 24 crew members of the U.S. reconnaissance plane well and arranged for their meetings with U.S. diplomats and consular officers.

The U.S. had expressed in the letter, in this, appreciation to the Chinese side for all this. The Chinese side understands the American people and the families of the crew are eagerly looking forward to an earlier return of the crew and a reunion with them. As the U.S. government has already said "very sorry" to the Chinese people, the Chinese government has, out of humanitarian considerations, decided to allow their crew members to leave China after completing the necessary procedures.

It should also be pointed out that this is not the conclusion of the case involving the U.S. military plane ramming into our Chinese aircraft, causing the missing of a Chinese pilot, entering the Chinese airspace and landing at a Chinese airfield without permission. The two sides will continue with the negotiations on the matter and other related issues.

The Chinese government and people demand that the U.S. side provide convincing explanations to the Chinese people on this incident. Stop sending aircraft to the vicinity of the Chinese coast for reconnaissance activities and take effective measures to avoid the recurrence of similar incidents.

The U.S. side must understand fully the seriousness of the incidents, take seriously the solemn position of the Chinese side and properly handle this incident. It must not make -- it must not make a erroneous judgment and further damage the bilateral relations. China's sovereign independence, territorial integrity, and national dignity brook no infringement. It is China's consistent position that state-to-state relations, including China-U.S. relations, must be based on such basic norms governing international relations as mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression and noninterference in each other's internal affairs.

The Chinese side have placed great importance to China-U.S. relations. To develop friendly relations on the cooperation between China and the U.S. serves the interest of both countries and the world at large.

It is hoped that the U.S. will strictly abide by the three China- U.S.-drawn communiques under basic norms governing international relations and will refrain from doing anything more to impair the bilateral relations. The U.S. shall take a constructive attitude and work with the Chinese side to bring the bilateral relations onto the track of normal development.

Thank you.

LIN: That was Hainan's foreign affairs office -- Chen Ci, summing up some remarks and communications made with the U.N. ambassador -- with the United States ambassador, Joseph Prueher.

He basically said that the United States had expressed its appreciation for China's care of the U.S. crew, that the United States regrets the collision and landing without permission. However, the Navy crew did indicate that it signaled 20 different maydays -- but that is not reflected in this particular statement -- and that the United States did acknowledge violating China's sovereignty.

He went on to say that the United States must take full responsibility for this incident and that he noted that the Chinese had handled this situation, this crisis, with calm.

Let's go to CNN's Lisa Rose Weaver. She is standing by live now in Hainan.

Lisa, what do you make of these remarks?

LISA ROSE WEAVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've just heard from the director of the Hainan foreign affairs office, Mr. Chen Ci, repeating essentially what came out of Beijing, actually simultaneously, from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. It would appear that the apologies -- or rather the expressions of regret that the United States has made thus far about the incident has been enough to secure a commitment from China to release the 24 crew members who are in Chinese custody.

Now, Chen Ci said in his statement that they would be released in the coming days. He did not specify a time. He said that procedures will have to be gone through. Things will have to be done before the actual release. But China is now on the record as having committed to releasing the 24 crew members.

Now, there was no mention of the airplane in this statement. The EP-3 surveillance craft remains on the airfield in the southern part of Hainan Province -- so no mention of that. We can make from these statements that the release of the airplane will come at a later date, perhaps as the result of negotiations elsewhere, not here in Hainan.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Lisa Rose Weaver, reporting live from Hainan.

And, as Lisa just mentioned, Chen Ci did say that China and the United States are still in negotiations, that this is not over yet , and the future of those reconnaissance missions are still on the table -- Colleen.

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, lots of implications of this story around the Asia region -- other countries, other regions in Asia having been watching this very closely.

And CNN's Marina Kamimura is on Guam right now, where I understand a plane is getting ready to take off.

Marina, bring us up to date on what's happening there.


CNN has learned that a Continental plane chartered by the U.S., and apparently on standby for the past few days at Guam's International Airport, is being prepared to leave Guam International Airport en route on a direct flight plan to Hainan Island to pick up those crew members. We believe that it won't leave for at least another six hours or so to pick up those crew members.

There had been speculation that the crew, when and if they were released by the Chinese, could go back to the United States via Guam, given that Guam is the home to the Anderson Air Force Base, home to the Pacific Air Force's 13th Air Force and 36th Air Base Wing, and having very good facilities really quite close to the island of Hainan.

As I said, what we have learned is that a Continental plane chartered by the U.S. is apparently being prepared -- final preparations being made for it to take off from Guam's International Airport in order to go pick up those crew members in Hainan.

MCEDWARDS: Marina, not to leave for another six hours, did I hear you say, just to be -- just to be clear?

KAMIMURA: That's what we believe: that preparations are being made. We are under the understanding that some Navy officials have made their way to the airport prepared to board that plane -- or perhaps could already be on board that plane -- as I said, that plane chartered from Continental, and having been on standby for the past couple of days at Guam's International Airport.

There had been speculation that perhaps a commercial flight or a military flight could be leaving Guam -- a military fight from Andersen Air Force Base or a commercial flight from the Guam International Airport. As I said, CNN has learned that there appears to be this Continental chartered flight being readied for that flight to Hainan.

MCEDWARDS: All right, CNN's Marina Kamimura on Guam for us.

Of course, that plane not to leave for another six hours, she says -- but, of course, in that news conference we just brought you from Hainan, there was no indication given on the timing of the release of the 24 crew -- in fact, the official saying that necessary procedures had to be carried out first -- that official also saying this is not the conclusion of the case, that there are other matters to be discussed.

And for more on that now, we're joined by CNN's Eileen O'Connor at the White House.

More things to be discussed here, including the listing of stopping sending aircraft to the vicinity of the Chinese coast. And, also, China wants the U.S. to take steps -- what it calls steps to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again, Eileen.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is where that maritime commission is going to come in, Colleen. U.S. officials had said that, in the letter that they were working on to the Chinese, the proposal to end this stalemate, that they had proposed using an already established maritime consultation group in order -- after an exchange of explanations from both sides, in order to deal with the problem of avoiding this kind of mishap again.

But I made some calls to U.S. officials. They haven't gotten back. But their position has been and continues, as far as we know, to be, that: You know, that surveillance flight was over international waters.

The United States is perfectly legitimate, they say, in conducting those surveillance flights. So it is not -- the U.S. officials and the U.S. position is that they are not going to back down on conducting surveillance flights. They believe that they are necessary for security in the region, as China extends its reach and strengthens its military in the region -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: And what about U.S. President George Bush at this point, Eileen? Are we expected to hear from him any time soon?

O'CONNOR: We are expecting a statement. As you know, he's going to North Carolina, where he has an event to talk about education. He's expected to leave around 9:00 morning. And we were -- we are expecting a statement. We're not sure that he -- if he's going to be giving that verbally upon departure or if it will be a written statement. But we are expecting some kind of statement, some kind of reaction.

You know, Colleen, very interesting in those remarks from Hainan that we were listening to, was the fact that the Chinese indicated the wording that broke this stalemate. U.S. officials had, up until now, basically been expressing regret and sorrow over the loss of life, but they had not expressed any sorrow over landing on Chinese territory, because, they said, in a mayday distress call, it is normal and they should be allowed to land if a plane is in distress.

So, clearly -- according to Chinese officials, at least -- it was this additional statement that the United States was "very sorry" to have landed on Chinese territory without permission. And, as you heard, the Chinese official then went on to interpret that as the United States expressing sorrow over violating Chinese sovereignty. I don't think you're going to see U.S. officials interpreting it quite that way -- Colleen. MCEDWARDS: Well, and there are different words in Chinese for the word "sorry," as you know. And there was a lot of discussion leading up to this about what precise language would be chosen in a way that both sides could sort of be seen as winning here.

At some point, are you people in Washington going to get to see a copy of that letter, so we can have a look and assess for ourselves?

O'CONNOR: Well, we will certainly hope so. And, as you know, the United States has insisted and still insists that any way that they end this standoff is in no way, to them, any expressions of sorrow. Regret is in no way, to them, an apology, because, again, they say those surveillance flights were justified. The accident occurred over international waters. And they want to hear from their crew members as to how they believe this accident occurred.

And, again, they consider it an accident, not an incident -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, CNN's Eileen O'Connor for us at the White House.

Regardless of the words chosen or not chosen, those 24 crew are going to be released. We are not sure of a timetable yet, but we'll keep you up to date here as we get more information in -- over to Carol now.

LIN: And, of course, no word, Colleen, as to what's going to happen to the Navy's EP-3 plane, which is still sitting on the tarmac at Hainan's airport.

Let's check in with CNN's Patty Davis, who is at the Pentagon live now, for reaction to some of these remarks out of Hainan -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, as far as that -- as far as the plane is concerned, Pentagon officials want it back very badly. There are some options. But it really depends, I'm being told, on what the Chinese are going to allow. Are they going to allow a repair crew to fly in to Hainan Island to repair it and then allow that plane to fly out? Or is the plane going to have to be packaged up and shipped off back to the United States or back to a U.S. base? That's the big question here today.

But a senior Pentagon official -- as far as the crew is concerned, a senior Pentagon official confirming that that Continental plane in Guam is the one that is scheduled to go ahead and go on into Hainan to pick the crew of 24 up -- no timetable on that at this point. The tentative plan so far has been to fly that crew then out back to Guam, perhaps change planes there in Guam and send them off to Hawaii, where they will be extensively debriefed.

Now, you know that that crew, the U.S. really hasn't had a chance to find out exactly what happened in that midair collision, what happened there. How much sensitive data and equipment was the crew able to destroy before that plane was boarded by the Chinese? Now, the Pentagon has been waiting in the wings much of this time. The diplomats have been taking the lead. Now it's the Pentagon's time to step up again and repatriate that crew back into U.S. soil.

Now, the surveillance flights, all along, the Pentagon has been saying, will continue. And they continue to stand by that -- Carol.

LIN: Well, Patty -- oh, by the way, I just want to let you know, we are waiting to hear more out of an official Foreign Ministry news conference which is going on right now in Beijing.

And CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon is standing by. She may interrupt us as soon as she gets fresh information out of there.

But, in the meantime, the Chinese are saying that this is not over yet, that they want to have very serious discussions -- or, as they're calling it, negotiations -- with the United States about these reconnaissance flights. So how much leverage do they have now that they're letting the U.S. crew go, but they still have the airplane? How important is that plane to the Pentagon?

DAVIS: Well, that's a good question. The Pentagon senior officials have told us that they have evidence that a lot of sensitive equipment was already taken off that plane. But the Chinese could have learned -- there still were some valuable pieces of information, valuable equipment left. So the Chinese could have learned some information that -- some information that the U.S. doesn't necessarily want them to know.

But, absolutely, the U.S. wants this plane back. The Chinese may have some leverage on that point. As for their surveillance flights, the U.S. says that this is part of -- this is part of U.S. national security, as well as security in the Pacific. And it very much wants to keep these surveillance flights going, despite the fact that China does not want them to continue. So that will be a point of negotiation, Carol.

LIN: So if they are still in negotiations, are they going to be negotiating with the American military attache in Hainan: General Neal Sealock? Or are they going to be negotiating with the U.S. Ambassador? I think there is a difference there.

DAVIS: That's a good question. And we just don't have an answer to that yet at this point from the Pentagon today.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Patty Davis, with the latest out of the Pentagon -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right.

And there have been simultaneous news conferences going on, just to make sure you understand what we're doing here. At 7:00, we brought you the news conference from Hainan. There was another news conference by Foreign Ministry officials. It was actually going on in Beijing. And CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon has been monitoring that for us, so we want to hear what she has learned from there right now -- Rebecca, go ahead.

REBECCA MACKINNON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Colleen, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman here in Beijing confirmed that U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher met here just a little while ago with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and that he delivered a letter in which the United States expressed that it is "very sorry" to the Chinese people and to the family of missing fighter pilot Wang Wei.

It also said that the United States expressed that it is very sorry for the U.S. aircraft violating Chinese airspace and landing without permission.

Now, it's very interesting to note the word that was used in this letter for "sorry" in Chinese is -- essentially translated, in Chinese, it's (SPEAKING CHINESE) which is a different word than either of the two words that have been mentioned before by diplomats that the two sides were disputing over. This word in Chinese really means a deep expression of sorrow or of regret. So that is the translation they decided to use for "very sorry." It appears to have been acceptable to the Chinese as expressing more -- a greater degree of apology than had been expressed before.

It appears that it has, indeed -- it has been confirmed that this apology has secured the release of the 24 U.S. crew members. But the Chinese side has made it very clear, the -- this investigation into the incident continues -- no indication of when the U.S. plane will be released, and that there are going to have to continue to be talks between China...

MCEDWARDS: Sorry, Rebecca, but we've got some more developments that we want to bring to you. I'm sorry for interrupting you, Rebecca. Stand by, if you will, Rebecca, for us.

Carol has got some new information for us now.

LIN: That's right.

In fact, Eileen O'Connor at the White House this morning actually got a copy of this letter -- Eileen.

O'CONNOR: No, Carol, I have a copy of the statement from the press secretary, not actually a copy of the letter. We'll hope that we'll see that eventually.

The statement by the press secretary simply says: "An agreement has been reached to bring home the flight crew of our EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft on Hainan Island. The U.S. Ambassador has received verbal assurances from the Chinese government that the aircrew will be allowed to leave promptly. Ambassador Prueher has delivered to the Chinese government a letter concerning this incident. And we are working out with the Chinese government the arrangements for departure" -- now, this a statement from the press secretary, Ari Fleischer, of the White House. And we are hoping that there will be another statement from the president at some point, either written or verbal, before he departs for North Carolina, leaving the White House about 8:30, leaving Andrews Air Force Base -- scheduled to leave, at least, at 9:00 a.m. -- Carol.

LIN: Eileen, is it any clearer as to what these procedures or these arrangements need to be in order to be made on the Chinese side for the crew to leave?

O'CONNOR: No, it isn't. I mean, obviously it's going to entail a transfer of their custody to U.S. diplomats, whether that occurs at the airplane. It's all these kinds of tiny details that need to be worked out. And that's clearly what they are indicating here -- Carol.

LIN: All right. Thank you very much, Eileen O'Connor at the White House.

Marina Kamimura was just reporting that a commercial plane, a Continental charter jet, is being prepared and will be departing for Hainan, China. And we presume that is to pick up the crew standing by there -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: Right -- and that plane not scheduled to leave for another few hours, but six hours Marina Kamimura reported.

And when we last left CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon, she was telling us about the language that was used in this letter, that the Chinese officials have interpreted that to be more acceptable than what was said before.

And, Rebecca, I'm wondering also if the inclusion of the expression of being sorry, the inclusion of violating airspace was a factor in this as well. Do the Chinese see that as a step forward and as something that was able to break the deadlock here?

MACKINNON: Yes, it does appear, Colleen, to have been a step forward. It appears to have been critical towards the release of the crew that the United States accept -- express some form of being sorry for the fact that the U.S. plane did enter Chinese airspace without permission and land without permission.

However, it was also made very clear tonight that there is still a great deal of disagreement about the events that transpired, that the two sides have not -- are not accepting each other's explanation, that talks are going to have to go on for some time in order to resolve this.

And so the Chinese have made it very clear this incident is not over. But they have characterized the situation as: On humanitarian grounds, they are releasing the crew at this point.

But, again, it's clear the plane is another matter entirely. And the U.S. and China have not finished this chapter by any means -- Colleen. MCEDWARDS: And, Rebecca, and in saying that, the Chinese said in their statement that they want the U.S. to stop sending aircraft to the vicinity of the Chinese coast, stop sending reconnaissance aircraft to the vicinity of the Chinese coast. The U.S. has argued all along it's allowed to. It's in international airspace.

What sort of rules, what sort of treaties, what sort of guidelines have there been in the past in terms of determining where these reconnaissance missions can take place off the Chinese coast?

MACKINNON: Well, Colleen, all of this is going to have to be hashed out between the U.S. and China in the weeks to come. It's clear that there is a great deal of disagreement. There are some previous international maritime agreements and some previous bilateral agreements between the United States and China that at least the United States side is hoping can be used as a framework for moving forward.

However, the Chinese side has not indicated in any way whether they are going to take that as a framework for moving forward. And it's very clear that the two sides are in for some long and rather arduous talks ahead before this dispute over what happened is brought to (AUDIO GAP) closure -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon for us in Beijing, thanks very much.

And we've got complete coverage for you here on CNN. The 24 crew members are to be released. We don't have a timetable on that yet. U.S. President George Bush is to make a statement some time this morning, not sure when, but you can be sure that we'll bring it to you when it happens.

We've got crews in Guam. We've got crews in Honolulu, where the crew, when it's released, is expected to eventually go to be brought back to U.S. territory. We've got you covered in Beijing, and, of course, on Hainan Island as well.



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