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China to Release U.S. Crew

Aired April 11, 2001 - 09:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: The Chinese government says it will release the 24 crew members being held on Hainan Island. The breakthrough comes 1 1/2 weeks after a U.S. Navy spy plane made an emergency landing, following a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

We have extensive coverage for you today, and we're going to start with CNN's Beijing bureau chief Rebecca MacKinnon -- Rebecca.

REBECCA MACKINNON, CNN BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Daryn, as you mentioned, the 24 U.S. crew members are very close to being released. The U.S. ambassador just came out of the U.S. Embassy, after having conducted over a week's worth of long and arduous negotiations, and expressed great relief that the crew members will be released very soon. But he said that he could not go into the details of the release of the crew at this time. Those will be forthcoming, most likely, in the morning tomorrow -- our time, 12 hours or so from now. We have yet to get the exact details.

He expressed the fact that he felt that the letter from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen, written late last week, was very critical to finding a resolution to this situation. It was critical, it seems, this letter that the United States outlined and drafted to the Chinese Foreign Ministry; it went through several drafts.

Finally, today, the Chinese accepted the final version, in which the United States conveyed to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that "We are very sorry for their loss." The United States also said, "We are very sorry for the entering of China's airspace and that the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely."

So the words "very sorry" were used twice here. This, apparently, was considered acceptable enough by the Chinese to release the 24 U.S. crew members. However, the issue of the plane is not closed. There are going to have to be talks beginning sometime next week so that the two sides can sort out their numerous differences over the events of the collision and come to some kind of resolution of this incident -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Rebecca, when you hear the Chinese officials speak today and talk about the release, you hear them talk about the United States admitted that it was in Chinese airspace, yet when you hear the American officials talk, you don't hear that admission. How important is that to the Chinese?

MACKINNON: Well, the Chinese have acknowledged that the United States plane did not enter its own airspace until after the collision. However, it still considers the fact that the U.S. plane remained in Chinese airspace after the collision and the fact that it entered and landed onto Chinese territory without permission an offense, even though the United States has said if this hadn't happened, the crew most likely would have perished.

Still, the Chinese felt that this required an apology, and the United States agreed to say that they are very sorry that this happened. But when you look at the wording of this, it is in no way acknowledging that United States intentionally violated Chinese airspace at any point -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Rebecca MacKinnon, in Beijing, with the latest, thank you.

With more now, here's Stephen.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Of course, that landing did take place on Hainan Island.

Let's get the latest now from there. The crew members have been held there ever since their emergency landing. Here's CNN's Lisa Rose Weaver, joining us by videophone, live from the island -- Lisa Rose.

LISA ROSE WEAVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Stephen, yes, we don't know exactly what is going on with the crew at the moment and whether or not they are in touch with the United States diplomats who have been here for the last several days, having meetings with them. We tried to reach U.S. officials, and it's just not possible to confirm what is going on at the moment.

As Rebecca said in her report, the crew members could be leaving China very soon. We don't know exactly how many hours away from now that will be.

One of the things that the U.S. diplomats here were doing earlier, in the last few days, was to help make preparations for their departure, including any documentation that they might need to leave the country. The U.S. officials are waiting for word from the Chinese about what exactly that documentation would be. We cannot confirm, but we can presume that they are hammering out those details now.

Now, the larger impasse between China and the United States, although it appears the crew is going to leave, is still really not over. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said earlier that both sides have to discuss the incident, have to discuss what caused the collision more than a week ago, and they have to discuss ways, from the Chinese perspective, for the United States to stop reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea. Again, that view is from the Chinese government -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Lisa Rose Weaver, on the videophone, from Hainan Island -- Lisa Rose, thank you -- Daryn. KAGAN: In the last hour, live here on CNN, we saw President Bush come out and speak about the release of the 24 detainees.

For more on that, let's go to the White House -- our Eileen O'Connor is standing by for that.


Well, it was a very brief statement, and the president took no questions. Now, why? Because the crew is not in U.S. territory at this point, so this is still very much a diplomatic dance, although the president acknowledges that plans are under way to get the crew back as quickly as possible.

He also said that this has been difficult for everyone and stressed the fact that he was proud of the crew.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This has been a difficult situation for both our countries. I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot. Our prayers are with his wife and his child.


O'CONNOR: The president says that he joins the American people and the families of the crew in expressing his pride and says that they will be welcoming them back soon. So he's, clearly, confident that these plans are under way, specific plans to bring the crew members back -- Daryn.

KAGAN: So, Eileen, the president had travel plans previously today. It looks like he's going to keep that schedule and head to North Carolina.

O'CONNOR: Yes, he is. Again, he's maintaining this very restrained tone throughout this. The United States has been very careful not to characterize this as an incident or a crisis, and they have talked about it being an accident. And using the secretary of state, the ambassador, and keeping it on working level between the diplomats has been something that they've been very keen to do, in order to prevent any damage to U.S.-China relations -- any permanent damage -- and an escalation of this -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Eileen O'Connor, at the White House, thank you.

As you've heard in our earlier reports this morning, the specific details of the crew's release are still being worked out at this hour. Plans are already in place to get the 24 men and women back to the United States. A plane is standing by on Guam, preparing to fly to Hainan Island to pick up the crew. They would then be flown from Hainan Island back to Guam. From Guam, they would fly to Hawaii, where government officials say repatriation would most likely take place.

FRAZIER: We'd like to get some more information and reaction now from Washington, including the latest from the Pentagon.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve is coordinating those developments from our Washington bureau.

Jeanne, good morning.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Stephen.

When that crew does get to Honolulu, it will be debriefed.

Joining me now, from the Pentagon, is CNN's Patty Davis.

Patty, can you give us some specifics on that debriefing? What will be asked? What do military officials hope to learn from this crew?

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, one military official tells me that that debrief is expected to last several days. There are obvious questions there that the United States wants to know: What happened in midair? Who hit whom? Exactly what happened there? What happened during that out-of-control fall? That plane fell 5,000 to 8,000 feet until the pilot was able to regain control of it. Exactly what did they tell? What did they -- in their Maydays -- tell the Chinese, in terms of coming into their airbase? And were they forced off that aircraft? How much were they able to destroy in terms of the surveillance equipment, and how much do they believe the Chinese had access to -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: Patty, is there any sense of how long that could take?

DAVIS: They're saying several days for that debrief to take place. After that, however, the 24-person crew will be flown to Whidbey Island, where a plan is being made right now to fly families who wish to come in -- that's Whidbey Island, the U.S. naval air station, in Washington state, where the EP-3 crew is based -- so they can have a reunion with their families, a welcome-home ceremony, of sorts. This will be all at government expense. That is how the reunion with families will take place -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: Chinese officials are saying, again, today, that they want to see an end to surveillance flights. Is the Pentagon hewing to its line that those flights will continue, Patty?

DAVIS: Well, I asked the Pentagon if there were options -- what else can they do besides these surveillance planes to get the kind of information that they want -- one military official saying that satellites are a possibility, ships are a possibility, but the military official told me "There is no room for concession right now on our aircraft to operate in international airspace." So the Pentagon, at least, is holding firm that these surveillance flights are going to continue, the Pentagon believing it's a matter of U.S. national security, as well as security in the Pacific.

MESERVE: And that plane, in the meantime, is still on the ground in China. Why do U.S. officials want so badly to get that back? DAVIS: Military officials here at the Pentagon are saying that they believe it is going to be quite some time before they get that plane back. One official tells me that they don't know exactly what the Chinese have garnered from the plane and what the crew was able to destroy, but at this point, even if it is stripped, they want the plane back. It's a symbolic measure, at least, to get that plane back. They don't want, in the future, for a U.S. aircraft to make an emergency landing overseas somewhere and for another country to believe, perhaps, that because China was able to keep this aircraft, another country can keep this aircraft.

So they say that they want that plane back. It's symbolic, and it's also a precedent thing for them.

MESERVE: OK, Patty Davis, at the Pentagon, thanks for that insight.

And joining me now here in the studio is Bates Gill of the Brookings Institution.

Thanks so much for coming in.

The Chinese said, repeatedly, we need to have an apology. You have read the language in the letter from the United States. There is no apology there. How was this finessed?

BATES GILL, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think it began, really, on Sunday, when Secretary Powell made statements that he regretted this incident. He said we recognize a violation of airspace, but that's in a very narrow sense, that is, when we landed without permission, according to the Chinese side. And he said we're sorry towards this, using Chinese word which just means "towards this" -- a very general term.

Then we get to the letter, where we have a "very sorry" about the loss of the pilot and the plane. And then a "very sorry" about entering the airspace. So it's really only a very narrow apology.

MESERVE: Is there something about the translation of these words that gives the Chinese what they wanted from this letter?

GILL: I think there may well be. For example, the word "acknowledge" that we use in English translates more to a kind of "admit" idea in Chinese. So that, sort of, for the Chinese, is able to take on board an admission of some guilt.

MESERVE: Why did the Chinese decide at this point to free this crew, and not earlier? Was it simply a matter of getting the words that worked for them?

GILL: I have several points. First, they needed to, I think, drag this out, to make general point of their unhappiness. Secondly, they recognized that with this weekend as an important holiday, and with Congress returning into session next week, on Monday or Tuesday, that the heat was going to really turn up. And finally, the language, I think, got just right so the Chinese could turn back to their people.

MESERVE: What have we learned about the internal dynamics in China and the role of public opinion?

GILL: They played a big role here. The leadership, I think, had to be very careful in China about how to finesse this and how to get precisely the kind of language so that they can turn back and sort of maintain their leadership and legitimacy in the face of what they see was an aggressive action by the United States.

MESERVE: Bates Gill, Brookings Institution, thank you so much.

GILL: Thank you.



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