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After U.S. Letter, China Will Release Detained Crew

Aired April 11, 2001 - 08:35   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We've had breaking news this morning that the Chinese will be releasing the American crew from Hainan, China, based on humanitarian reasons, and only after it received a letter that Chinese officials said expressed regret for the collision of the U.S. Navy plane with the Chinese fighter jet, as well as for landing in their country without permission.

However, this is a dance of details when it comes to that letter. President Bush, just moments ago, issued the United States' side of the story.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm pleased to be able to tell the American people that plans are under way to bring home our 24 American servicemen and -women from Hainan Island. This morning, the Chinese government assured our American ambassador that the crew would leave promptly. We are working on arrangements to pick them up and to bring them home.

This has been a difficult situation for both our countries. I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of the life of a Chinese pilot. Our prayers are with his wife and his child.

I appreciate the hard work of our ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, and his entire Embassy team, who worked tirelessly to solve this situation. The American people, their families, and I are proud of our crew, and we look forward to welcoming them home.


LIN: President Bush, not taking a single question from any of the waiting reporters. As far as the future of this Navy crew, a commercial jet has been chartered out of the island of Guam. We are expecting it to depart for China to pick up crew in about five hours.

In the meantime, nothing is yet said about the future of that EP- 3 Navy plane, which still sits on the runway in China.

Let's go to CNN's national security correspondent David Ensor this morning.


A presidential statement notable for its brevity -- although the president said he is pleased at the latest development, he was careful to quote the Chinese as saying that the return of the crew will be prompt. And he was careful to quote the Chinese as saying that the matter will be resolved thereafter.

The thing isn't over until it's over, of course. U.S. officials here say they want to see those crew members leaving China. Only then will they breathe sighs of relief in the Bush administration and here at the State Department.

What brought this about was this letter that we have been talking about this morning, which was signed by Ambassador Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing -- which people in this building are calling the letter of the two very "sorrys," in which the ambassador says that the United States is very sorry that China and the family of the pilot have apparently lost a pilot's life and an aircraft, and is also very sorry that the U.S. plane landed without prior verbal permission to land in Hainan -- although it did follow emergency procedures.

The officials here are saying there was never going to be an apology. They regard this letter as being well short of that. Although it is sorry twice, it is very sorry twice.

Now, the question of the meeting on April 18 is the issue that diplomats here will now be concerning themselves with. We haven't got the details yet of where that meeting will take place or what level the two sides will be represented by. Those will be key questions in coming days.

But if you look ahead to the negotiations there, the United States would like to get its aircraft back, and Ambassador Prueher's letter talks about the prompt return of the aircraft. There are some U.S. officials who are skeptical as to whether that aircraft will be returned all that promptly. Of course, we've seen satellite imagery that's shown Chinese trucks lined up alongside the aircraft, and some U.S. officials believe parts of the aircraft may have been removed. So there are questions about how quickly that aircraft will be returned -- if at all, in complete form.

The Chinese in that meeting will be seeking U.S. assurances that the United States will stop these surveillance flights along the Chinese airspace -- outside of it, in international waters. Those assurances are not going to be forthcoming, U.S. officials say. The surveillance flights have been going on for quite some years. They are important, in the view of U.S. intelligence, and in the view also of U.S. allies, like Japan.

So it may be a difficult and contentious meeting on April 18. They also have to discuss who is to blame for this incident, and clearly, the two sides are not likely to agree on that.

So there's plenty of diplomatic work yet to come and still a sense of reserve on the part of the Bush administration until we see those crew members actually leaving China.

Back to you -- Carol.

LIN: David, how much leverage, then, is the plane in terms of these discussions and the Chinese demand that these reconnaissance flights stop?

ENSOR: Even if the Chinese never return the plane, I would doubt that you would see the United States ceasing its surveillance flights. The view, certainly in U.S. intelligence community, is that those flights are critical. There are radio transmissions, microwave transmissions, and other sorts of intelligence gathering that is really much better done from those aircraft that can fly along the coast than is done with satellites and other technology.

So as China's military might grows -- and it is growing quite rapidly; they have a large budget increase plan for next year -- U.S. officials feel it's all the more important that those flights continue, and they stress the flights do not go inside Chinese territorial airspace. So I don't think there's any give on that point -- Carol.

LIN: Thank you very much, David Ensor, reporting live this morning from the State Department -- Colleen.

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: For more on this, we are joined in Washington by Ambassador James Lilly. He is a former ambassador to China.

As you know and as you've been hearing on our channel this morning, there was a lot of discussion leading up to this about language and that the United States would issue an apology or would express regret without an admission of blame or guilt and without the suggestion that one side or the other was morally or legally responsible here. What do you see in that letter?

JAMES LILLY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: Well, I think David Ensor's right. The use of "very" was something we had suggested earlier and that was included in there: very, very, very, very sorry. But the other two words I think are interesting -- and the Chinese insist upon is sincerity -- I notice that "sincere regret" is put in there. And this must have given them a blush of pleasure. Plus the fact that we use the neutral word "acknowledge" -- your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance flights. We don't say "recognize your right to do this." We acknowledge that you're going to do it.

I'm sure this doesn't mean very much, but these words play a big role in our semantic exchanges with the Chinese.

MCEDWARDS: And the U.S. had been reluctant to say that it violated international airspace in any way, even after that collision occurred. How significant is it that in this letter the United States also says it is sorry. I don't know if it was "sorry" or "very sorry" -- can you clarify?

LILLY: "Very sorry."

MCEDWARDS: Very sorry for violating international air space and for making that landing without permission.

LILLY: We were also very pleased that they got out and landed safely.

Well, I think that this was sort of a throwaway. We gave the Mayday signal when the plane was coming in. There's no real insistence that we apologize or regret going into their airspace, because this was a plane in desperate circumstances. International law indicates that when it's in that kind of a circumstance, the host country is obliged to help them in. But the Chinese insisted on this, and I think it's a throwaway -- I don't think it really makes that much difference.

MCEDWARDS: So Ambassador Lilly, when the history books look back on this at some point, what are they going to say -- who blinked?

LILLY: I don't think anybody blinked on this one. I think the Chinese recognize it was the long view that mattered -- they keep using that expression. And the real interest is that they triggered a lot, in their concern about the Olympics, in writing letters to Congress -- which some people found rather offensive -- and in that they got this message, from people like Senator Don Nickles that people weren't going to China.

And the overseas Chinese, oddly enough -- Susan Au Allen did a very tough and brave thing when she canceled a meeting with them. They weren't able to mobilize the feeling outside of China that they sought to do. The people in Asia were not enthralled with the Chinese keeping these crew members as hostages against the United States in trying to extract concessions. This didn't go well.

So I think, in calculating all of the things, the Chinese did the wise move. They did an intelligent move and a humanitarian move: That's a key word -- that's the way we got our dissident out of the Embassy in 1990 -- humanitarian gesture, give them credit for it.

MCEDWARDS: Ambassador Lilly, you've had great experience with this and you know how it works. I wonder if you can give me a little bit of insight into how it works at a diplomatic level. How likely are people to hear, in the days ahead that there has been some kind of deal, some kind of details we don't know about -- some kind of deal with China, either on its trade issues, its bid for the 2008 Olympics, or the proposed sale of more heavy weaponry to Taiwan?

LILLY: I would more likely say that this is implicit leverage. It's sort of like the baseball bat in the corner that you glance at while you're talking with someone. You don't use it explicitly. And these were factors that the Chinese had to take into consideration.

But I think there's all sorts of nuances in the language. I can go into this in detail. I don't know if you have time for it, how you are able to get language. But the one thing American diplomats have to put up with -- and I sympathize with the diplomats that had to put up with it -- is the tirades against them. The commercials and the statements of principle that go on and on as you sit there and sort of look at the ceiling while they let you have it. And then you get down to work.

I think, in this case, the rhetoric was rather disagreeable. When they sat in the sessions, I understand from people who were in the State Department, that they went rather pragmatic and reasonably civil. And this is my experience too.

MCEDWARDS: All right, Ambassador James Lilly, thanks very much for joining us.

LILLY: My pleasure -- thanks.

LIN: Colleen, we're going to look on the horizon right now. In fact, CNN's Patty Davis, at the Pentagon has got some breaking details in terms of when the U.S. crew might be able to leave China and return home -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What I learned from here at the Pentagon is that Pentagon officials are saying that, for at least the families of those 24 crew members, they are planning a welcome home ceremony, of sorts, flying those families to the U.S. naval air station at Whidbey. That's in Washington state. That is where this EP-3 plane is based.

The first priority here is getting that crew debriefed, and that will take place in Hawaii. One military official tells me that that is expected to last several days. One senior Pentagon official says that there is a plane standing by in Guam, readying to fly into Hainan Island as soon as that is worked out. That plane, then, will take the crew back to Guam -- that is the tentative plan at this point -- and then they will switch planes and go on to Hawaii for that debrief.

Now, as for the EP-3 itself, that U.S. surveillance plane that has the state of the art technology on board, which the United States believes the crew was able to get rid of much of, they still say that they want that plane back very badly. And although the Chinese may have had access to some of what's on board that the plane, military officials say that they have evidence that the Chinese did remove equipment.

They are still saying they want the plane back, if only for symbolic purposes. One official tells me that you don't just make an emergency landing on foreign soil and then that country gets to keep the plane. They don't want to set a precedent here; they want that plane back.

The Pentagon is expected to brief later today, giving more details on just how this will all work. Right now, in terms of a timetable, in terms of that crew being released, they just don't know -- Carol.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Patty Davis. About 30 minutes ago, from the White House, President Bush said that the word is that there will be a prompt release. We will see what the timing of that is -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: Carol, thanks.

Another development we're watching for you here on CNN is that the U.S. ambassador to China, Ambassador Joseph Prueher, is expected to make a statement very shortly -- and we'll bring it to you just as soon as it happens.



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